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Archive for the ‘Big Government’ Category

Most readers care about economic developments and economic comparisons involving the United States.

Some readers also care about what’s happening in other major nations, such as China, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Relatively few readers, by contrast, care about economic developments in nations with comparatively small economic footprints, such as Peru.

That’s understandable, but I want to cite Mary Anastasia O’Grady’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal because she focuses attention on the very important – and very unsavory – relationship between big government and corruption.

Her column is about political turmoil in Peru, but what she writes applies everywhere in the world.

…it’s hard to see how an electorate that so often votes for populism at the polls can extricate itself from the grasp of crooked politicians. The hard left’s solution, which is to rewrite the 1993 constitution and give the state a larger role in the economy, would make things worse. …Peruvians are frustrated. They have been told that by voting they can secure an honest government. But elected officials repeatedly turn out to be self-interested and corrupt. …Yet as fast as they throw the bums out and bring in new ones, more scandals arise. At the core of this dysfunction is a state with vast powers to redistribute wealth. …Even voters who say they want less corruption may find that change conflicts with their self-interest. The siren song of populism draws them to politicians who can hand out plenty of government jobs and other goodies in a world of weak institutional checks.

Amen.

I made the same point, for instance, in this 2009 video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity. And I was focusing on the United States.

Simply stated, when politicians have more power over the allocation of a nation’s resources, the greater their incentive to abuse that power.

To be sure, it’s not a linear relationship.

A country’s political culture also matters. Some nation’s have developed very low levels of tolerance for corruption, so there’s not a strong relationship between corruption and the size of government.

As you can see from Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, the Nordic nations are among the countries that are especially good in this regard.

But nation’s from the developing world, including the perennial bottom-dweller Venezuela, tend to get poor scores.

The moral of the story is that it’s especially important to limit government (and therefore limit opportunities for corruption) in countries that don’t have high scores.

I’m including this data because Peru, unfortunately, is in the bottom half of nations.

Not a terrible score when compared to Venezuela, but weak compared to Chile.

That being said, I want to close with a dose of optimism about Peru.

Today’s final visual is a chart showing how economic freedom in the country dramatically increased starting in the mid-1980s when the “Washington Consensus” was ascendant. And, just as Prof. William Easterly found in his research, this eventually kick-started much better economic performance.

P.S. It is worrisome that Peruvian economic policy stopped improving beginning about 2005. And based on Ms. O’Grady’s column, it seems unlikely that policy will get better in the near future.

P.P.S. Chile remains (at least for now) the big economic success story of Latin America, though Panama deserves a bit of attention as well.

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Public finance experts sometime differ in how to describe a value-added tax.

  • Is it a hidden form of a national sales tax, imposed at each stage of the production process?
  • Is it a hidden withholding tax on income, imposed at each stage of the production process?

Both answers are actually correct. The VAT is both a tax on consumption and a tax on income because – notwithstanding its other flaws – it has the right “tax base.”

In other words, like the flat tax, a VAT taxes all economic activity, but only one time (i.e., no double taxation of income that is saved and invested). And it usually has a single rate, which is another feature of a flat tax.

That’s why a VAT (in theory!) would be acceptable if it was used to finance the complete abolition of the income tax.

But that’s not a realistic option. Heck, it’s not even an unrealistic option.

Instead, many politicians in the United States want to keep the income tax and also impose a VAT so they can finance a bigger burden of government – which is exactly what’s been happening in Europe.

Unfortunately, they’re getting some support from the American Enterprise Institute. Alan Viard, a resident scholar at AEI, has a new column urging the adoption of a VAT.

Let’s review what he wrote and explain why he’s wrong.

The U.S. faces a large long-term imbalance between projected federal tax revenue and federal spending… To narrow the fiscal imbalance, we should follow the lead of 160 other countries by adopting a value-added tax (VAT), a consumption tax that is economically similar to a retail sales tax. …Adopting a VAT would significantly curb the debt buildup.

I’ve never been impressed with the argument that the U.S. should adopt a policy simply because other nations have done the same thing.

The United States is much richer than other countries in large part because we haven’t replicated their mistakes. So why start now?

But let’s deal with Viard’s assertion that a VAT would “significantly curb the debt buildup.”

I recently showed the opposite happened in Japan. They adopted a VAT (and have repeatedly increased the VAT rate), but debt has increased.

But I think the strongest evidence is from Europe since we have several additional decades of data. Those nations started imposing VATs in the late 1960s and they now all have very high VAT rates.

And what’s happened to debt?

Well, as you can see from the chart, big increases in the tax burden were matched by even bigger increases in government debt.

The moral of the story is that Milton Friedman was right when he warned that, “History shows that over a long period of time government will spend whatever the tax system raises plus as much more as it can get away with.”

So why would Viard support a VAT when the evidence overwhelmingly shows that a big tax increase will worse a nation’s fiscal outlook?

He argues that a VAT would be the least-worst way to finance bigger government.

Although tax increases on the affluent place the burden on those with the most ability to pay, they impede long-run economic growth by penalizing saving and investment and distorting business decisions. The economic costs become larger as tax rates are pushed higher. …The VAT is more growth-friendly than high-income tax increases because it does not penalize saving and investment and poses fewer economic distortions.

He’s right that a VAT doesn’t do as much damage as class-warfare tax, but he’s wildly wrong to assert that it is “growth-friendly.”

Simply stated, a VAT will drive a further wedge between pre-tax income and post-tax consumption. That not only will discourage work. It also will discourage saving and investment.

The only positive thing to say is that a VAT doesn’t discourage those good things as much as some other types of tax increases.

But that’s sort of like saying that it’s better to lose your hand in an accident instead of losing your entire arm. Call me crazy, but I think the best outcome is to avoid the accident in the first place.

In other words, the bottom line is that we shouldn’t have any tax increase. Especially since 100 percent of America’s fiscal problem is the consequence of excessive government spending.

I’ll close by debunking the notion that a VAT is a simple tax.

As you can see from this European map, VATs can impose huge complexity burdens on businesses.

Yes, the map shows that some nations have relatively simple VATs, but American politicians already have shown with the income tax that they can’t resist turning a tax system into a Byzantine nightmare. Of course they would do the same with the VAT, creating special loopholes and penalties to please their donors.

P.S. Here’s my video from 2009, which explains how a VAT works and why it would be a bad idea.

Everything I said back then is even more true today.

P.P.S. The clinching argument is that one of America’s best presidents opposed a VAT and one of America’s worst presidents supported a VAT. That tells you everything you need to know.

P.P.P.S. You can enjoy some amusing – but also painfully accurate – cartoons about the VAT by clicking here, here, and here.

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Most Republicans and Democrats have a self-interested view of divided government.

They obviously prefer if their party controls everything. After all, that’s how Republicans got tax reform in 2017 and it’s how Democrats got Obamacare in 2010.

But they also like gridlock if that’s the only way of stopping the other party from wielding all the power.

Which is why Democrats liked gridlock after the 2018 election (they won the House of Representatives) and Republicans are going to like gridlock after the 2020 election (assuming they hold the Senate).

But what about those of us who want more economic liberty? Is gridlock good or bad?

As a matter of political economy, gridlock is good because it is harder for politicians to do anything when there’s divided government. Indeed, America’s Founders created a “separation of powers” system precisely because they wanted “checks and balances” to limit the power of politicians.

That’s the theory.

So how has it worked in practice?

First, we can look at international evidence by comparing the United States and Europe. We know two things.

  • European nations have a larger burden of government spending than the United States and generally have lower levels of economic liberty when compared to America.
  • European nations have parliamentary systems of government (the party that controls the legislature, by definition, controls the entire government), which means no checks and balances that can produce gridlock.

It’s certainly possible – or even quite likely – that those two points are interconnected. In other words, government has expanded faster in Europe precisely because there was no effective way of slowing or blocking statist legislation (and, as we know from the Second Theorem of Government, it’s difficult to take away goodies once voters get used to dependency).

Second, we can look at domestic evidence by comparing what’s happened in recent decades when there’s been gridlock in Washington.

Professor Steve Hanke crunched the numbers a couple of years ago. Here’s the chart he prepared showing that we got the most spending restraint (shaded in green) when there was divided government.

Steve’s data is persuasive, but I think it’s even more instructive to focus on the next column, which shows changes in non-defense spending.

By this measure, the only good results (i.e., a falling burden of spending) occurred during the Reagan and Clinton years. Since I did a video on exactly this issue, I concur that we got good results during their presidencies.

But notice that we now see very bad numbers when there was divided government during the Eisenhower and Nixon years. And the numbers for the first President Bush moved further in the wrong direction.

The bottom line is that divided government can be good, but it may actually produce the worst-possible results when you combine weak-on-spending Republican presidents with profligate Democratic Congresses.

P.S. There’s strong evidence that gridock following the 2010 election produced better results for the nation.

P.P.S. Here’s my more advanced breakdown of what happened to government spending for every president since LBJ.

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The day after the election, I wrote that “left-wing goals are now very unlikely” because Republicans almost certainly will retain control of the Senate.

But perhaps I should have been ever bolder and argued that the election was a rejection of the left-wing agenda.

An editorial from the Wall Street Journal points out that voters did not vote for bigger government or more statism.

…the closer we inspect the nationwide election returns, the more the result looks like a defeat…for the progressive agenda. …Democrats lost seats in the House, giving up some of the suburban gains they made in 2018 while continuing to struggle in rural areas. …A GOP Senate may compromise with Mr. Biden around centrist ideas, but the aggressive House agenda of the last two years would die again. This result is all the more remarkable given that Democrats had nearly all of the media, Silicon Valley billionaires, and all of the leading cultural figures and institutions helping them. …The lack of coattails was also evident in the states, where Democrats spent heavily to flip legislatures. …The GOP flipped both legislative bodies in New Hampshire, despite Mr. Trump’s loss in the Granite State, and Republicans protected their advantage nearly everywhere else. …There was no blue wave, and certainly no mandate for progressive change. …in their considerable wisdom, the voters may have elected Mr. Biden but they left his party and its radical ideas behind.

Some readers may think that the Wall Street Journal‘s editors are engaging in spin. In other words, because of their pro-market views, they’re trying to make it seem like a defeat wasn’t really a defeat.

But what about Helaine Olen, a reliably left-wing columnist for the Washington Post, who reached the same conclusion when opining about election results from California.

Proposition 22 — which would allow gig-economy companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to continue treating drivers as independent contractors — passed handily. On the other hand, Proposition 16, which would have restored affirmative action to California’s public college and university admissions, has gone down in defeat. …Let’s take Proposition 22. Activists have been unhappy with the tech giants of the sharing economy for years, pointing out repeatedly that they are using venture capital to subsidize an unprofitable industry and that, moreover, they offer almost nothing in either the way of labor or consumer protection. The entire business model is designed to get around government regulations. …Voters did not appear particularly concerned that allowing a major employer to override state regulation and effectively set its own working conditions is a terrible precedent — not when a few extra dollars per ride was at stake. When it came down to worker welfare vs. short-term convenience and financial gain, it wasn’t even a contest. …Proposition 16…supporters roundly outspent opponents and hoped the increased attention to issues of systemic racial inequities in the wake of the killing of George Floyd would help them garner support. …The biggest obstacle might have been the traditional antipathy toward affirmative action reasserting itself — a survey last year found that 3 out of 4 Americans opposed using race or ethnicity as a factor in college admissions.

And the New York Times isn’t exactly a bastion of right-wing thinking, yet an article by Thomas Fuller, Shawn Hubler, Tim Arango and also acknowledges that the election results were not great for the left.

…the nation’s most populous state put up mammoth numbers for the Democrats. But dig a little deeper into the results and a more complex picture of the Golden State voter emerges, of strong libertarian impulses and resistance to some quintessentially liberal ideas. In a series of referendums, voters in California rejected affirmative action, decisively shot down an expansion of rent control and eviscerated a law that gives greater labor protections for ride-share and delivery drivers, a measure that had the strong backing of labor unions. A measure that would have raised taxes on commercial landlords to raise billions for a state that sorely needs revenue also seemed on track for defeat. …said Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist…“California is a very liberal state that is now resistant to higher taxes.” …For all their liberal leanings on issues like the environment, California voters have long been less welcoming to new taxes… Proposition 15, would have removed the Proposition 13 tax limits on commercial properties like office buildings and industrial parks, continuing to shield homeowners while raising an estimated $6.5 billion to $11.5 billion a year for public schools and local governments. The measure was trailing on Thursday.. More than $100 million was also spent on another hot-button measure, rent control. Polls showed that the housing crisis was the No. 1 concern for state voters… And yet voters up and down the state resoundingly rejected efforts to expand tenants’ rights and rent control. …What do voters think about voting for Democrats and at the same time not supporting Democratic-led initiatives? José Legaspi, a Los Angeles resident…voted for Mr. Biden and did not think twice about opposing the measure that would raise taxes on commercial properties. “I truly believe in paying taxes,” he said. “However there is a point at which one should limit how much more in taxes one should personally pay.”

The bottom line is that Joe Biden won the White House (barring some dramatic and unexpected developments), but not because of his statist agenda.

It’s more accurate to say that voters wanted to end the sturm and drang of Trump, but without embracing bigger government.

P.S. I’m not going to pretend that voters are rabid libertarians who are clamoring for my preferred policies (such as shutting down departments, genuine entitlement reform, etc). But I also think that it’s safe to say that they don’t want the left’s agenda (class warfare, Medicare for all, green new deal, etc) of bigger government and more dependency.

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Earlier this month, I reviewed some evidence and analysis about the corruption in Washington.

Today, let’s look at some tangible examples of how the political elite routinely exploit their positions to enrich themselves by pillaging taxpayers.

We could start with the obvious example of Hunter Biden, but he’s just the tip of the iceberg. I noted way back in January that several members of Joe Biden’s family have cashed in on their connection to the former Vice President.

It goes without saying that lobbyists and other special interests are funneling money to the Biden family because they expect that they’ll be rewarded with lucrative contracts and other goodies from the government. Heck, the Biden family is basically cutting out the middleman in this picture.

But this isn’t a partisan issue. Plenty of Republicans also play the same game.

A column by Larry Getlen in the New York Post describes how this racket works.

Rather than risk their careers taking bribes for potentially minuscule rewards, …today’s politicians are savvier, engaging in what he calls “corruption by proxy.” While politicians and their spouses are often subject to rigid regulations on what gifts they can accept and what sort of business they can conduct, others around them — like their friends or children have no such obstacles. So while a politician could theoretically wind up in prison for accepting $10,000 for doling out favors, establishing overseas connections that could land your children multi-million-dollar deals is harder to detect, and often legal. …This ethical looseness is endemic throughout the federal government. …it has spread like a virus through Congress, where the lines between members, their families, and lobbying groups have become indistinguishable.

Senator Mitch McConnell gets some unfavorable attention in the column, along with many other lawmakers from both parties.

And if you want even more examples, you can easily search the Internet if you want to learn about the unsavory actions of other senior officials – including Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein.

The inescapable takeaway is that we have an unholy trinity of politicians, big government, and corruption.

And it’s totally bipartisan.

For instance, the Atlantic put together a very harsh assessment of the Trump Cabinet back in 2018.

Shulkin and Carson face the same problem: dubious use of taxpayer dollars in their duties as secretaries. They can console themselves knowing that they’re in good company. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have been caught in extravagant expenditures, too. Less heartening is the sixth example, Tom Price, who was unceremoniously forced out as secretary of health and human services in September 2017. There are so many cases of huge spending of taxpayer dollars by Cabinet secretaries that it’s easy to lose track of them all—or simply to become desensitized.

The list is damning (and is costing taxpayers a lot of money).

…a trip to Europe during summer of 2017. The government paid not only for Shulkin, but also for his wife, a security detail, and other staffers. Almost half of the trip was devoted to tourism, visiting castles and then the Wimbledon tennis tournament, to which the Shulkins improperly accepted tickets. …Carson’s big problem is a $31,000 dining-table set purchased for his office, which far exceeded regulations on spending for decoration. …Price was forced to resign after spending more than $1 million on travel on private and military jets. That’s the largest single figure to emerge, but only by a hair, while the type of behavior has occurred repeatedly. Documents obtained by the left-leaning watchdog group CREW suggest Mnuchin racked up nearly $1 million in his own travel, including a notorious trip to watch the eclipse at Fort Knox in Kentucky, publicized by his wife Louise Linton’s Instagram feud about it. …Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who took a security detail along when he went on a non-work-related two-week vacation in Greece and Turkey last year. …For still-opaque reasons, the Interior Department paid $139,000 for a door for Zinke’s office… Scott Pruitt, the EPA chief, who has spent more than $100,000 on first-class tickets, an expenditure he attributed to the need for security.

But even more damning is this sentence.

Because fiscal conservatism isn’t an organizing principle for the Trump presidency, it’s easier for Cabinet secretaries to justify big spending.

In other words, taxpayers are getting screwed because Trump has been profligate (even more of a big spender than Obama!).

And let’s not forget that the corruption is so bad that some Trump insiders have wound up in legal trouble.

But remember, this is a problem with both political parties, and it’s a near-inevitable consequence of having a bloated federal government that is collecting and redistributing trillions of dollars (and also wielding enormous regulatory power, which also can be improperly used to reward friends and punish enemies).

Let’s close by adding to our collection of politician humor. After all, if they keep ripping us off, we at least deserve a few laughs.

P.S. The silver lining to all the bad news discussed above is that the American people are aware there is a problem. According to Chapman University’s Survey of American Fears, “For the fifth year in a row the top fear of Americans is corrupt government officials. And as in the previous five years, the fear that our government is corrupt far exceeds all others we asked about. More than 3/4 of Americans said they are afraid or very afraid of corrupt governmental officials in 2019.”

P.P.S. If there was a gold medal for insider corruption, the Clintons would own it (Obama and his people were sleazy, but amateurs by comparison).

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Bernie Sanders was considered a hard-core leftist because his platform was based on higher taxes and higher spending.

Elizabeth Warren also was considered a hard-core leftist because she advocated a similar agenda of higher taxes and higher spending.

And Joe Biden, even though he is considered to be a moderate, is currently running on a platform of higher taxes and higher spending.

Want to know who else is climbing on the economically suicidal bandwagon of higher taxes and higher spending? You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the pro-tax International Monetary Fund just published its World Economic Outlook and parts of it read like the Democratic Party’s platform.

Here are some of the ways the IMF wants to expand the burden of government spending.

Investments in health, education, and high-return infrastructure projects that also help move the economy to lower carbon dependence… Moreover, safeguarding critical social spending can ensure that the most vulnerable are protected while also supporting near-term activity, given that the outlays will go to groups with a higher propensity to spend their disposable income… Some fiscal resources…should be redeployed to public investment—including in renewable energy, improving the efficiency of power transmission, and retrofitting buildings to reduce their carbon footprint. …social spending should be expanded to protect the most vulnerable where gaps exist in the safety net. In those cases, authorities could enhance paid family and sick leave, expand eligibility for unemployment insurance, and strengthen health care benefit coverage…social spending measures…strengthening social assistance (for example, conditional cash transfers, food stamps and in-kind nutrition, medical payments for low-income households), expanding social insurance (relaxing eligibility criteria for unemployment insurance…), and investments in retraining and reskilling programs.

And here’s a partial list of the various class-warfare taxes that the IMF is promoting.

Although adopting new revenue measures during the crisis will be difficult, governments may need to consider raising progressive taxes on more affluent individuals and those relatively less affected by the crisis (including increasing tax rates on higher income brackets, high-end property, capital gains, and wealth) as well as changes to corporate taxation that ensure firms pay taxes commensurate with profitability. …Efforts to expand the tax base can include reducing corporate tax breaks, applying tighter caps on personal income tax deductions, instituting value-added taxes.

Oh, by the way, if nations have any rules that protect the interests of taxpayers, the IMF wants “temporary” suspensions.

Where fiscal rules may constrain action, their temporary suspension would be warranted

Needless to say, any time politicians have a chance to expand their power, temporary becomes permanent.

When I discuss IMF malfeasance in my speeches, I’m frequently asked why the bureaucrats propose policies that don’t work – especially when the organization’s supposed purpose is to promote growth and stability.

The answer is “public choice.” Top IMF officials are selected by politicians and are given very generous salaries, and they know that the best way to stay on the gravy train is to support policies that will please those politicians.

And because their lavish salaries are tax free, they have an extra incentive to curry favor with politicians.

P.S. I wish there was a reporter smart enough and brave enough to ask the head of the IMF to identify a single nation – at any point in history – that became rich by expanding the size and cost of government.

P.P.S. There are plenty of good economists who work for the IMF and they often write papers pointing out the economic benefits of lower taxes and smaller government (and spending caps as well!). But the senior people at the bureaucracy (the ones selected by politicians) make all the important decisions.

 

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Earlier this year, I asked “Why are there so many bad and corrupt people in government?” and suggested two possible explanations.

  1. Shallow, insecure, and power-hungry people are drawn to politics because they want to control the lives of others.
  2. Good people run for political office, but then slowly but surely get corrupted because of “public choice” incentives.

I’m sure both answers apply to some extent. But let’s consider whether one answer is more accurate in more cases?

In an article for Quillette, Professor Crispin Sartwell of Dickinson College looks at this chicken-or-egg issue of whether people are corrupted by government or corrupt people gravitate to government.

“Power corrupts,” as the saying goes, and a corollary is that, other things being equal, the more power, the more corruption. …But perhaps the explanation runs the other way: It’s not only or not even primarily that power corrupts, but that corrupt people seek power, and the most effectively corrupt are likeliest to succeed in their quest. …That is, it is likely that a political career would attract moral corner-cutters. …There may be a certain percentage of people who seek power because they want to do good, or it may be that in the back of their minds, every political leader believes that he intends to do good. But to use power to do good, you’ll have to do whatever’s necessary to get that power. You’ll likely have to compromise whatever basic moral principles (“tell the truth,” for example) you came in with. …political power is a constant temptation to hypocrisy, or just flatly demands it. And when the public persona and the private reality come apart, a human being becomes a moral disaster, a mere deception. That is a fate common among politicians.

Professor Sartwell may not have a firm answer, but one obvious conclusion is that good people will be scarce in Washington.

And it’s not just the politicians we should worry about. The whole town seems to attract dodgy people.

In a 2018 study, Professor Ryan Murphy of Southern Methodist University found that Washington has far more psychopaths than any other part of the country.

Psychopathy, one of the “dark triad” of personality characteristics predicting antisocial behavior, is an important finding in psychology relevant for all social sciences. …While a very small percentage of individuals in any given state may actually be true psychopaths, the level of psychopathy present, on average, within an aggregate population (i.e., not simply the low percentages of psychopaths) is a distinct research question. …The most extreme data point is the District of Columbia, which received a standardized score of 3.48. …The presence of psychopaths in District of Columbia is consistent with the conjecture found in Murphy (2016) that psychopaths are likely to be effective in the political sphere. …The District of Columbia is measured to be far more psychopathic than any individual state in the country, a fact that can be readily explained…by the type of person who may be drawn a literal seat of power.

Moreover, we know that the crowd in D.C. figuratively screws taxpayers, but it appears they’re also busy screwing in other ways.

Residents in Washington, D.C. have the highest rates of sexually transmitted disease, compared to 50 states, according to a recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention report. Out of the four kinds of STDs that the CDC report identified – chlamydia, gonorrhea, primary and secondary syphilis and congenital syphilis – the district scored No.1 in the first three by a large margin… For every 100,000 D.C. residents, 1,083 cases of chlamydia were reported. Alaska came in second with only 772 cases. Similarly, the district had 480 cases of gonorrhea per 100,000 population, double the rate of Mississippi, which ranked second.

Since this report was based on data in 2016, it’s possible another state has overtaken D.C.

But given Washington’s big lead, that would take a lot of risky extracurricular activity.

This tweet caught my eye because it nicely captures how the “experienced” people in Washington often may be the worst of the worst.

And we’ll close with this quote, which comes down on the side of bad people naturally gravitating to government.

P.S. If you like mocking the political class, you can read about how the buffoons in DC spend their time screwing us and wasting our money. We also have some examples of what people in MontanaLouisianaNevada, and Wyoming think about big-spending politicians. This little girl has a succinct message for our political masters, here are a couple of good images capturing the relationship between politicians and taxpayers, and here is a somewhat off-color Little Johnny joke. Speaking of risqué humor, here’s a portrayal of a politician and lobbyist interacting. Returning to G-rated material, you can read about the blind rabbit who finds a politician. And everyone enjoys political satire, as can be found in these excerpts from the always popular Dave Barry. Let’s not forgot to include this joke by doctors about the crowd in Washington. And last but not least, here’s the motivational motto of the average politician.

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I identified four heroes from the “Battle of Ideas” video I shared in late August – Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. Here’s one of those heroes, Milton Friedman, explaining what’s needed to control big government.

For all intents and purposes, Friedman is pointing out that there’s a “public choice” incentive for government to expand.

To counteract that disturbing trend, he explains that we need a high level of “societal capital.” In other words, we need a self-reliant and ethical populace – i.e., people who realize it’s wrong to use the coercive power of government to take from others.

Sadly, I don’t think that’s an accurate description of today’s United States.

So how, then, can we get control of government?

Since politicians are unlikely to control spending in the short run (their time horizon is always the next election), our best hope is to get them to agree to a rule that constrains what can happen in the future.

I’ve repeatedly argued in favor of a spending cap. Such a policy has a proven track record, and is far more effective than a balanced budget requirement.

That’s what should happen.

Now let’s focus on what shouldn’t happen. As Milton Friedman famously observed in 2001, tax increases are never the solution because politicians will simply spend any additional revenue (and the tax increases also will hurt the economy and cause Laffer-Curve feedback effects).

P.S. You can enjoy more wisdom from Friedman on issues such as the role of the firm, spending other people’s money, and so-called Robber Barons.

P.P.S. On the issue of spending other people’s money, here’s an example of Jay Leno channeling Friedman.

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I have a “Bureaucrat Hall of Fame” to acknowledge individuals who go above and beyond the call of duty. As measured by sloth and waste, of course.

But maybe I also need a “Bureaucracy Hall of Fame” for examples that capture the self-serving nature of departments, bureaus and agencies. I already have several examples.

Let’s augment this collection by taking a virtual trip to the Pacific Ocean.

The Economist has a sobering report about how many people in Indonesia aspire to become overpaid bureaucrats.

When the government rang to tell Budi (not his real name) that he had been hired as a tax collector, it was like a dream come true. When he graduated from university in 2013, the only work he could find was as a stevedore at the local port. Jobs in his hometown of Ende, a small city on the island of Flores, were scarce. Local government promised a steady income and a pension. …Budi was one of the lucky ones. Last year some 4.2m people applied for around 150,000 spots in the civil service. …Government salaries are often higher than those at private companies, and jobs are for life. …senior bureaucrats, particularly in the farther reaches of the archipelago, regard the districts in which they serve as their own personal fiefs.

Sadly (but predictably), they don’t repay the coerced generosity of taxpayers by providing quality governance.

…they often fail to serve the people. Public services are patchy, particularly at the level of local government, which is responsible for health care and education, among other things. Real spending per person by local governments soared between 1994 and 2017, by 258% on average, according to the World Bank. But services remain ropy. More than half of children leave school unable to read properly, for instance. Inefficiency is rife. At the local level, exam results, jobs, promotions and transfers are regularly sold to the highest bidders, according to a study published in 2012… Local politicians often reward supporters with temporary posts in the civil service. …A report published in 2017 by the State Civil Service Agency found that more than 40% of the 696 directors (the highest-ranking bureaucrats) that it assessed were not fit to do their jobs.

Want more evidence?

This column from 2017 is painful evidence that more money for bureaucracy in Indonesia doesn’t translate into better results.

Unsurprisingly, it’s almost impossible to fire bureaucrats in Indonesia, notwithstanding their penchant for graft and corruption.

…it is almost impossible to fire civil servants. In 2017 only 347 out of 4.3m were dismissed. …Workers often slink away from their desks hours before they are supposed to. …Many civil servants also seek to bump up their incomes through schemes… Employees of the tourism ministry, for instance, are paid a generous daily fee when they travel for work. It is standard practice to extend trips by a day or two beyond what is necessary, to claim extra cash, says Hadiono. Some officials are not content to stop there. Every year, millions of dollars are siphoned off the health system which, with its relatively large budget, is a particularly popular target for embezzlers.

The most amusing (or most tragic) part of the story is that Indonesia actually set up a bureaucracy that’s in charge or reforming bureaucracy.

…there have been many attempts to reform the bureaucracy; an entire ministry is devoted to the cause.

Needless to say, that won’t produce good results.

Since I realize there may not be many readers who have a keen interest in policy developments in Indonesia, allow me to close with two observations that have very wide application (in addition to the above point about bureaucracies behaving in a self-interested fashion).

  1. First, poor countries won’t become rich countries if they don’t follow the recipe for growth and prosperity. At the risk of understatement, excessive bureaucracy is not one of the ingredients. Bureaucratic bloat is a problem throughout the developing world, not just Indonesia.
  2. Second, it’s a very bad sign for any nation’s outlook if ambitious people think becoming a bureaucrat is the ticket for economic success. That’s either evidence of excessive pay for people in government or evidence of a private sector stifled by too much government. Or both.

Remember, this satirical video actually does a very good job of capturing how bureaucracy actually operates.

P.S. If you want to enjoy additional bureaucrat humor, my collection includes a joke about an Indian training for a government job, a slide show on how bureaucracies operate, a cartoon strip on bureaucratic incentives, a story on what would happen if Noah tried to build an Ark today, a top-10 list of ways to tell if you work for the government, a new element discovered inside the bureaucracy, and a letter to the bureaucracy from someone renewing a passport.

P.P.S. If you want unintentional humor, the OECD actually asserted that the problem in Indonesia is that government is too small.

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If you’re a curmudgeonly libertarian like me, you don’t like big government because it impinges on individual liberty.

Most people, however, get irked with government for the practical reason that it costs so much and fails to provide decent services.

California is a good example. Or perhaps we should say bad example.

The Tax Foundation recently shared data on the relative cost of living in various metropolitan areas. Looking at the 12-most expensive places to live, 75 percent of them are in California.

So what do people get in exchange for living in such expensive areas?

They get great weather and scenery, but they also get lousy government.

Victor Davis Hanson wrote for National Review about his state’s decline.

Might it also have been smarter not to raise income taxes on top tiers to over 13 percent? After 2017, when high earners could no longer write off their property taxes and state income taxes, the real state-income-tax bite doubled. So still more of the most productive residents left the state. Yet if the state gets its way, raising rates to over 16 percent and inaugurating a wealth tax, there will be a stampede. It is not just that the upper middle class can no longer afford coastal living at $1,000 a square foot and $15,000–$20,000 a year in “low” property taxes. The rub is more about what they get in return: terrible roads, crumbling bridges, human-enhanced droughts, power blackouts, dismal schools that rank near the nation’s bottom, half the nation’s homeless, a third of its welfare recipients, one-fifth of the residents living below the poverty level — and more lectures from the likes of privileged Gavin Newsom on the progressive possibilities of manipulating the chaos. California enshrined the idea that the higher taxes become, the worse state services will be.

Even regular journalists have noticed something is wrong.

In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Kelly, Reed Albergotti, Brady Dennis and Scott Wilson discuss the growing dissatisfaction with California life.

California has become a warming, burning, epidemic-challenged and expensive state, with many who live in sophisticated cities, idyllic oceanfront towns and windblown mountain communities thinking hard about the viability of a place many have called home forever. For the first time in a decade, more people left California last year for other states than arrived. …for many of California’s 40 million residents, the California Dream has become the California Compromise, one increasingly challenging to justify, with…a thumb-on-the-scales economy, high taxes… California is increasingly a service economy that pays a far larger share of its income in taxes and on housing and food. …Three years ago, state lawmakers approved the nation’s second-highest gasoline tax, adding more than 47 cents to the price of a gallon. …service workers in particular are…paying far more as a share of their income on fuel just to stay employed. …A poll conducted late last year by the University of California at Berkeley found that more than half of California voters had given “serious” or “some” consideration to leaving the state because of the high cost of housing, heavy taxation or its political culture. …Business is booming for Scott Fuller, who runs a real estate relocation business. Called Leaving the Bay Area and Leaving SoCal, the company helps people ready to move away from the state’s two largest metro areas sell their homes and find others.

Niall Ferguson opines for Bloomberg about the Golden State’s outlook.

As my Hoover Institution colleague Victor Davis Hanson put it last month, California is “the progressive model of the future: a once-innovative, rich state that is now a civilization in near ruins.”… It’s not that California politicians don’t know how to spend money. Back in 2007, total state spending was $146 billion. Last year it was $215 billion. …the tax system is one of the most progressive, with a 13.3% top tax rate on incomes above $1 million — and that’s no longer deductible from the federal tax bill as it used to be. …And there’s worse to come. The latest brilliant ideas in Sacramento are to raise the top income rate up to 16.8% and to levy a wealth tax (0.4% on personal fortunes over $30 million) that you couldn’t even avoid paying if you left the state. (The proposal envisages payment for up to 10 years after departure to a lower-tax state.) It is a strange place that seeks to repel the rich while making itself a magnet for illegal immigrants… And the results of all this progressive policy? A poverty boom. California now has 12% of the nation’s population, but over 30% of its welfare recipients. …according to a new Census Bureau report, which takes housing and other costs into account, the real poverty rate in California is 17.2%, the highest of any state. …But that’s not all. The state’s public schools rank 37th in the country… Health care and pension costs are unsustainable. …people eventually vote with their feet. From 2007 until 2016, about five million people moved to California but six million moved out to other states. For years before that, the newcomers were poorer than the leavers. This net exodus is surging in 2020. …Now we know the true meaning of Calexit. It’s not secession. It’s exodus.

It’s not just high taxes and poor services.

George Will indicts California’s politicians for fomenting racial discord in his Washington Post column.

California…progressives…have placed on November ballots Proposition 16 to repeal the state constitution’s provision…forbidding racial preferences in public education, employment and contracting. Repeal, which would repudiate individual rights in favor of group entitlements, is part of a comprehensive California agenda to make everything about race, ethnicity and gender. …Proposition 16 should be seen primarily as an act of ideological aggression, a bold assertion that racial and gender quotas — identity politics translated into a spoils system — should be forthrightly proclaimed and permanently practiced… California already requires that by the end of 2021 some publicly traded companies based in the state must have at least three women on their boards of directors… And by 2022, boards with nine or more directors must include at least three government-favored minorities. …Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed legislation requiring all 430,000 undergraduates in the California State University system to take an “ethnic studies” course, and there may soon be a similar mandate for all high school students. “Ethnic studies” is an anodyne description for what surely will be, in the hands of woke “educators,” grievance studies.

Several years ago, I crunched some numbers to show California’s gradual decline.

But there was probably no need for those calculations. All we really need to understand is that people are “voting with their feet” against the Golden State.

Simply stated, productive people are paying too much of a burden thanks to excessive spending, excessive taxes, and excessive regulation.

So they’re leaving.

P.S. Many Californians are moving to the Lone Star State, and if you want data comparing Texas and California, click here, here, herehere, and here.

P.P.S. Some folks in California started talking about secession after Trump’s election. Now that the state’s politicians are seeking a bailout, I expect that talk has disappeared.

P.P.S. My favorite California-themed jokes can be found here, here, and here.

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Earlier this month, as part of my ongoing series about convergence and divergence, I wrote about why South Korea has grown so much faster than Brazil.

My main conclusion is that nations need decent policy to prosper, and Johan Norberg shares a similar perspective in this video.

Let’s see what academic researchers have to say about this topic.

In an article for the Journal of Economic Literature, Paul Johnson and Chris Papageorgiou have a somewhat pessimistic assessment about the outlook for lower-income countries.

In its simplest form, convergence suggests that poor countries have the propensity to grow faster than the rich, so to eventually catch up to them. …there is a broad consensus of no evidence supporting absolute convergence in cross-country per capita incomes—that is poor countries do not seem to be unconditionally catching up to rich ones. …Our reading of the evidence…is that recent optimism in favor of rapid and sustainable convergence is unfounded. …with the exception of a few countries in Asia that exhibited transformational growth, most of the economic achievements in developing economies have been the result of removing inefficiencies, especially in governance and in political institutions. But as is now well known, these are merely one-off level effects.

Here’s a table from their study.

As you can see, high-income countries (HIC) generally grew faster last century, which is evidence for divergence.

But in the 2000s, there was better performance by middle-income countries (MIC) and low-income countries (LIC).

That seems to be evidence that the “Washington Consensus” for pro-market policies generated good results.

Indeed, maybe I’m just trying to be hopeful, but I like to think that the last several decades have provided a roadmap for convergence. Simply stated, nations have to shift toward capitalism.

For another point of view, Dev Patel, Justin Sandefur and Arvind Subramanian have a somewhat upbeat article published by the Center for Global Development.

…the basic facts about economic growth around the world turned completely upside down a quarter century ago—and the literature doesn’t seem to have noticed. …While unconditional convergence was singularly absent in the past, there has been unconditional convergence, beginning (weakly) around 1990 and emphatically for the last two decades. …Looking at the 43 countries the World Bank classified as “low income” in 1990, 65 percent have grown faster than the high-income average since 1990. The same is true for 82 percent of the 62 middle-income countries circa 1990. …It’s not “just” China and India, home to a third of the world’s population on their own: developing countries on average are outpacing the developed world.

Here’s a pair of graphs from the article. On the left, we see nations of all income levels grew at roughly the same rate between 1960 and today.

But if we look on the right at the data from 2000 until the present, low-income and middle-income countries are enjoying faster growth.

That article, however, doesn’t include much discussion of why there’s been some convergence.

So let’s cite one more study.

In a report for the European Central Bank, Juan Luis Diaz del Hoyo, Ettore Dorrucci, Frigyes Ferdinand Heinz, and Sona Muzikarova look for lessons from European Union nations.

…sound policymaking plays a key role in the attainment of real convergence, primarily via adequate measures and reforms at national level. …for a given euro area Member State to achieve economic convergence it needs to improve its institutional quality, i.e. that of those institutions and governance standards that facilitate growth… some euro area countries have not met expectations in terms of delivery of sustainable convergence… in the period 1999-2016 income convergence towards the EU average occurred and was significant in some of the late euro adopters (the Baltics and Slovakia), but not in the south of Europe. …Several low-income euro area members have, in fact, only just maintained (Slovenia and Spain) or even increased (Greece, Cyprus and Portugal) their income gaps in respect of the EU average.

Let’s close with two charts from the ECB study.

First, look at this chart tracking the relative performances of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland compared to the average of Western European nations.

What stands out is that Ireland went from being a relatively poor nation to a relatively rich nation.

Needless to say, I would argue that Ireland’s dramatic improvement is closely correlated with a shift toward free markets that began in the 1980s.

Indeed, Ireland currently has the 10th-highest level of economic freedom for all countries.

Next, here’s a chart reviewing how various European nations have performed since 1999.

Ireland grew the fastest, given where it started. But notice how Slovakia and the Baltic nations also have been star performers.

So the nations that have adopted free-market reforms have grown faster than one might expect based on convergence theory.

And you won’t be surprised to see that the nations that have lagged – Greece and Italy – are infamous for statist policies and an unwillingness to reform.

The bottom line – assuming you want to improve the lives of people in poor nation – is that the world needs more capitalism and less government.

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New Jersey is a tragic example of state veering in the wrong direction.

Back in the 1960s, it was basically like New Hampshire, with no income tax and no sales tax. State politicians then told voters in the mid-1960s that a sales tax was needed, in part to reduce property taxes. Then state politicians told voters in the mid-1970s that an income tax was needed, again in part to reduce property taxes.

So how did that work out?

Well, the state now has a very high sales tax and a very high income tax. And you won’t be surprised that it still have very high property taxes – arguably the worst in the nation according to the Tax Foundation.

But you have to give credit to politicians from the Garden State.

They are very innovative at coming up with ways to make a bad situation even worse.

In an article for City Journal, Steven Malanga reviews the current status of New Jersey’s misguided fiscal policies.

Relative to the size of its budget, New Jersey’s borrowing is by far the largest. Jersey plans to cover most of the cost of its deficit with debt by tapping a last-resort Federal Reserve lending program. New Jersey is already the nation’s most fiscally unsound state, according to the Institute for Truth in Accounting. It bears some $234 billion in debt, including about $100 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. A recent Pew study estimated that, between 2003 and 2017, the state spent $1 for every 91 cents in revenue it collected. …Before the pandemic, Murphy had proposed a $40.7 billion budget for fiscal 2021, a spending increase of 5.4 percent. …The administration has taken only marginal steps to reduce spending by, for instance, delaying water infrastructure projects. Many other cuts Murphy has announced involve simply shelving plans to spend more money.

The very latest development is that the state’s politicians want to exacerbate New Jersey’s uncompetitive tax system by extending the state’s top tax rate of 10.75 percent to a larger group of taxpayers.

The New York Times reports on a new tax scheme concocted by the Governor and state legislature.

New Jersey officials agreed on Thursday to make the state one of the first to adopt a so-called millionaires tax… Gov. Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, announced a deal with legislative leaders to increase state taxes on income over $1 million by nearly 2 percentage points, giving New Jersey one of the highest state tax rates on wealthy people in the country. …The new tax in New Jersey…is expected to generate an estimated $390 million this fiscal year… With every call for a new tax comes criticism from Republicans and some business leaders who warn that higher taxes will lead to an exodus of affluent residents.

As is so often the case, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial does a good job of nailing the issue.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate President Steve Sweeney struck a deal on Thursday to raise the state’s top marginal tax rate to 10.75% from 8.97% on income of more than $1 million. Two years ago, Democrats increased the top rate to 10.75% on taxpayers making more than $5 million. …New Jersey’s bleeding budget can’t afford to lose any millionaires. In 2018 New Jersey lost a net $3.2 billion in adjusted gross income to other states, including $2 billion to zero-income tax Florida, according to IRS data. More will surely follow now.

The WSJ is right.

As shown by this map, there’s already been a steady exodus of people from the Garden State. More worrisome is that the people leaving tend to have higher-than-average incomes (and it’s been that way for a while since New Jersey’s been pursuing bad policy for a while).

I’ll add one additional point to this discussion. One of the best features of the 2017 tax reform is that there’s now a limit on deducting state and local taxes when filing with the IRS.

This means that people living in high-tax jurisdiction such as California, New York, and Illinois (and, of course, New Jersey) now bear the full burden of state taxes.

In other words, New Jersey’s politicians are pursuing a very foolish policy at a time when federal tax law now makes bad state policy even more suicidal.

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With the election less than two months away, there’s a lot of discussion and debate about Trump’s performance.

I put together a report card last year showing that his economic policies have been a mixed bag, with good grades on tax and regulation, but bad grades on trade and spending.

Today, let’s focus specifically on fiscal issues and try to identify the best and worst changes that have occurred during his presidency.

Let’s start with the good news.

For what it’s worth, I’m somewhat conflicted between two different provisions of the 2017 tax reform.

I’m a huge fan of the cap on the state and local tax deduction. For years, I had been arguing that it was very foolish for the federal tax system to subsidize high-tax states.

So I was delighted that the 2017 law restricted this subsidy (and I’m further delighted that we’re already seeing a positive impact with people “voting with their feet” against states such as New York, Illinois, and California).

However, that reform is not permanent. Like many other provisions of that law, it automatically expires at the end of 2025.

Which is why I’m going to choose the lower corporate tax rate as Trump’s best policy. Not only is that reform permanent (at least until/unless Joe Biden takes office), but it was enormously important for American competitiveness since the United States used to have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world.

And the rate is still too high today, especially if you include the impact of state corporate tax rates, but at least the 2017 reform took a big step in the right direction.

And that big step is good news for jobs, wages, investment, and competitiveness.

Now for the bad news.

I could make the case that Trump’s overall spending increase is the problem.

Indeed, in a column for Reason, Matt Welch points out that Trump has not been a fiscal conservative.

The most traditional way to measure the size of government is to count how much money it spends. In Barack Obama’s last full fiscal year of 2016…, the federal government spent $3.85 trillion… In fiscal year 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic triggered a record amount of spending, the federal government was on course to cough up $4.79 trillion… So under Trump’s signature, before any true crisis hit, the annual price tag of government went up by $937 billion in less than four years—more than the $870 billion price hike Obama produced in an eight-year span… You can argue plausibly that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party will grow the government more. But the fact is, the guy railing against socialism…has grown spending faster than his predecessor and shown considerably less interest in confronting the entitlement bomb.

All of this is true, but I want to focus on specific policies, not just the overall spending performance.

Which is why I would argue that Trump’s worst fiscal policy is captured by this table from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

It shows what Trump promised compared to what he delivered and I’ve highlighted his awful record on non-defense discretionary spending (which is basically domestic spending other than entitlements). He promised $750 billion of reductions over 10 years and instead he saddled the American economy with $700 billion of additional increases.

P.S. Click here if you want background info on the different types of federal spending. But all you probably need to know is that many parts of the federal government that shouldn’t exist (Department of Education, Department of Agriculture, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, etc) get much of their funding from the non-defense discretionary budget.

P.P.S. Trump has failed to address entitlements, which is reckless, but that’s a sin of omission. The increase in non-defense discretionary is a sin of commission.

P.P.P.S. I also thought about listing Trump’s failure to follow through on his proposal to get rid of taxpayer subsidies for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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Milton Friedman was one of the the 20th century’s greatest defenders of capitalism and individual freedom.

He had marvelous insights on issues such as fiscal policy, Sweden, tax competition, and other people’s money, but one of my favorite Friedman quotes is about the role of business.

This should be non-controversial, but we need to remember that big companies are not necessarily strong proponents of free enterprise.

Yes, they like lower tax rates and a few other market-oriented policies, but many large firms are more than happy to climb into bed with big government so they can gain special advantage from subsidies, handouts, bailouts, and protectionism.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the trade association for corporate CEOs of has disavowed Friedman.

Business Roundtable is modernizing its principles on the role of a corporation. Since 1978, Business Roundtable has periodically issued Principles of Corporate Governance that include language on the purpose of a corporation. Each version of that document issued since 1997 has stated that corporations exist principally to serve their shareholders. …We therefore provide the following Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which supersedes previous Business Roundtable statements and more accurately reflects our commitment… This statement represents only one element of Business Roundtable’s work to ensure more inclusive prosperity.

You can read the new language here. There’s only one pages of text and you’ll notice that it’s a lot of vapid jargon without any measurable commitments.

Indeed, the letter is so vague that some observers think it’s irrelevant.

In a column for the Washington Post, James Copland of the Manhattan Institute points out that profit-maximizing companies already consider the interests of so-called stakeholders.

Critics and supporters of business alike have characterized the statement as a major shift away from “shareholder” capitalism toward an alternative “stakeholder” model pushed by some progressive academics and policymakers. It isn’t. The Business Roundtable’s statement unequivocally states that “the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all.” To be sure, it proclaims that each of the chief executives signing on shares “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders” — including customers, suppliers, employees and the broader community. But that’s a truism. No business can long survive without meeting such stakeholders’ needs. …The corporate signatories do not suggest in any way weakening the fiduciary duties of the boards and managers of ordinary for-profit shareholder corporations to manage such companies’ affairs for shareholders’ benefit. …there is a big difference between saying that a for-profit shareholder corporation should be sensitive to varying constituencies’ concerns and saying that its principal purpose is something different from the traditional view. One needn’t be an expert in public-choice economics or corporate governance to understand that politicizing corporate decision-making would be inefficient.

Lucian Bebchuk and Roberto Tallarita of Harvard Law School, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, share some real-world evidence that the CEOs are engaging in empty posturing.

Although the Roundtable described the statement as a radical departure from shareholder primacy, observers have been debating whether it signaled a significant shift in how business operates or was a mere public-relations move. …We contacted the companies whose CEOs signed the Business Roundtable statement and asked who was the highest-level decision maker to approve the decision. Of the 48 companies that responded, only one said the decision was approved by the board of directors. …The most plausible explanation for the lack of board approval is that CEOs didn’t regard the statement as a commitment to make a major change in how their companies treat stakeholders. …a review of the board-approved corporate governance guidelines of the companies whose CEOs joined the statement…mostly reflect a clear “shareholder primacy” approach. …The evidence is clear: Notwithstanding statements to the contrary, corporate leaders are generally still focused on shareholder value.

I think these two columns are accurate.

The vast majority of the CEOs who signed the Business Roundtable’s letter presumably have no intention of making unprofitable decisions solely to curry favor with the broader community.

That being said, the letter is still bad news because it basically acquiesces to the left’s misguided view that profits are somehow bad for society.

The Wall Street Journal made this point in an editorial in defense of the Friedman position.

The mucky-mucks of the Business Roundtable are tweeting in unison how “proud” they are to have abandoned the corporate purpose of serving shareholders for the more politically au courant “stakeholder” model. …media cheerleaders seem especially pleased that the CEOs have thrown the late, great economist Milton Friedman over the side. …The attempt to smear Friedman’s counsel as amoral is false. His point was that profitable businesses serve the common good better than executives who spend money on “social responsibility” but preside over business failure. The second point is Friedman’s warning that CEOs who put social responsibility above shareholders will find it redounds to their detriment. They feed the public belief that free markets and business are “wicked and immoral” and must be curbed by “external forces,” which typically means politicians.

In a column for National Review, Andrew Stuttaford also fears that the letter gives a green light to those who want more regulation by government.

The executives who retool a company’s mission to suit a particular conception of “social responsibility” are spending shareholders’ money on a moral agenda… Often repackaged as a demand that corporations be measured by the extent to which they match arbitrary and ever-tightening E (environmental), S (social), and G (governance) standards, it is now a way of corralling private enterprise without the bother of legislation. …the flourishing (and profitable) ecosystem that ESG investing has created…encompasses consultancies, advocacy organizations, “chief sustainability officers,” and many, many more rent-seekers besides. ESG is bad news for investors, but it is not a bad way of filling the wallets of those that feed off it. …In effect, therefore, many companies…will be forced to change the way they do business as they try to keep up with ever-more-stringent rules set not by democratically elected legislators but by the unaccountable, the ambitious, the greedy, and the fanatical.

Speaking of unaccountable and greedy, that’s a good description of Elizabeth Warren’s legislation to give Washington greater control of major companies.

Professor Greg Mankiw of Harvard opined about this issue last month for the New York Times.

If you open any standard economics textbook, such as one of mine, you will be told that a firm’s objective is to maximize profit. …Given the vast range of economic and political problems the world faces, this approach is often said to be too narrow. …former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.,…joined in the criticism. “It’s way past time we put an end to the era of shareholder capitalism, the idea the only responsibility a corporation has is with shareholders… They have a responsibility to their workers, their community, to their country.” …In forsaking a mandate of narrow self-interest for one of broad social welfare, this approach to corporate management sounds noble, perhaps even obvious. But it is more problematic under closer scrutiny. …this approach to corporate management expects executives to be broadly competent social planners rather than narrowly focused profit maximizers. It’s unlikely that corporate executives, with their business training and limited experience, have the skills to play this role well. …One lesson of Econ 101 is that the self-interested behavior of consumers and businesses, directed by market forces and constrained by competition, can lead to desirable outcomes.

In an op-ed earlier this year for the Wall Street Journal, Vivek Ramaswamy opined that he and his fellow CEOs should not have a special role in determining economic policy.

‘Stakeholder capitalism” is…the fashionable notion that companies should serve not only their shareholders, but also other interests and society at large. …My main problem with stakeholder capitalism is that it strengthens the link between democracy and capitalism at a time when we should instead disentangle one from the other. …Managers of corporations gain their positions by maximizing profits and minimizing losses. …But these business leaders have no special standing to decide whether a minimum wage for American workers is more important than full employment, or whether minimizing society’s carbon footprint is more important than raising prices on consumer goods. …I have no special standing to legislate my morals because I am a CEO. I do, however, make the final decision about our company’s research-and-development budget. …the reason many corporate executives are speaking up in favor of stakeholder capitalism is that they think they will gain popularity at a time when it is unpopular to be perceived as a pure capitalist. …Some may argue that companies will be more successful in serving shareholders over the long run if they also serve societal interests. If that’s true, then classical capitalism should do the job, since only companies that serve society will ultimately thrive, and “stakeholder capitalism” would be superfluous.

But some CEOs can’t resist the temptation.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the social-justice posturing of one of the the CEOs who signed the Business Roundtable’s letter.

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink…has assumed a role as self-styled conscience of the business world in telling CEOs how to run their companies. …BlackRock is the world’s largest asset manager, with some $7.43 trillion in client assets. He is now threatening to vote against corporate directors and management if they don’t do what he says, and he is especially exercised about climate change. …Corporations in which BlackRock invests will also have to comply with the rules from a “Sustainability Accounting Standards Board” on issues such as labor practices and workforce diversity. …Like his friends at the Business Roundtable, Mr. Fink is big on “stakeholder” capitalism. …If he means serving employees, customers, suppliers and communities, he is merely saying what any successful company already does. But our guess is that by stakeholders Mr. Fink really means regulators and politicians. …We can’t help but wonder if Mr. Fink, after a profitable life in business, is auditioning to be Treasury Secretary.

In an article for the Foundation for Economic Education, Professor T. Norman Van Cott makes the all-important point that successful companies automatically generate benefits for people other than shareholders.

The marketplace is an arena where buyers and sellers both win. Do buyers and sellers really care about each other? …I sure am grateful that I don’t have to depend on the good-heartedness of Florida orange producers to send oranges to Indiana. It’s not that the orange producers and I aren’t well-meaning, just that oranges would not find their way to Indiana if good-heartedness were the motivation for commerce. …Microsoft provides a wonderful example…the shareholder value of Microsoft, as large as it is, surely pales in comparison to what its customers around the world gain. …Microsoft has achieved its immense shareholder value not because its customers, workers, suppliers, and communities are poorer. Indeed, nothing could be further from the truth. Its stakeholders have been enriched immeasurably by its pursuit of maximum shareholder value.

Writing for USA Today, Professor Steve Hanke is very critical of the Business Roundtable.

…the Business Roundtable launched a major attack on property rights, the bedrock of capitalism. …the Roundtable, which represents nearly 200 of America’s blue-chip companies, downgraded shareholders. According to the Roundtable, the purpose of a corporation will no longer be to conduct business with the sole objective of generating profits for shareholders. Owners of corporations (read: shareholders) will now just be one of five “stakeholders”… The Roundtable’s new anti-capitalist mission statement promises to dilute and muffle shareholders’ voices and further politicize corporate governance. …The great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter concluded in his 1942 classic “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy” that businessmen would “never put up a fight under the flag of their own ideals and interest.” …Schumpeter concluded that businessmen, through their ignorance and cowardice, would assist those who wished to destroy capitalism.

Megan McArdle also is skeptical. Here’s some of what she wrote for the Washington Post.

…business leaders have no right to do charity on someone else’s dime. You might admire plumbers who donate fixtures to needy families, but not if they donated the fixtures you’d purchased for your own bathroom. That is essentially what stakeholder capitalists are demanding of chief executives: Take the money and power that shareholders have entrusted to you and divert those resources to benefit someone else. …if “stakeholder capitalism” means anything, it must mean companies doing things that make shareholders at least somewhat worse off. …Corporate social responsibility…can be even less accountable than good old-fashioned shareholder capitalism. Money is relatively easy to measure: Shareholders have more of it at the end of the quarter, or they don’t, and either way you know how the boss is doing. But if the chief executive pours that cash into better-upholstered offices, more-generous fringe benefits and a slew of charitable causes, who’s to say whether the company’s goals are being met? …As Harvard health-care economist Amitabh Chandra noted on Twitter after the Business Roundtable’s announcement, “appealing to an amorphous ‘social mission’ ” has allowed nonprofit hospitals “to foil regulators, acquire their competition, and increase market power.” Beware of any proposal that might make the rest of the economy look more like the health-care sector.

Robert Samuelson’s column in the Washington Post points out that previous episodes of “corporate social responsibility” did not yield good outcomes.

…we’ve already been here. In the first decades after World War II, large U.S. corporations adopted a social and political model very much like the model recommended by the Roundtable. There was much talk of “stakeholders,” not shareholders. Companies were supposed to attend to their social responsibilities. “Capitalism” as a term went out of style… The corporate responsibility fad of the 1950s and 1960s was premised on the belief that…companies could achieve both their traditional financial goals as well as the less traditional agenda of providing higher living standards and employment security. …What we know with hindsight is that this confidence was a conceit of a moment in time. …These lessons of history have been either forgotten or ignored. But they have not gone away. Rather than heap endless new responsibilities on companies, we’d be better off having them tend to their traditional tasks — including maximizing profits.

By the way, the problem of big business rejecting capitalism isn’t limited to the CEOs of the Business Roundtable.

Writing for Project Syndicate, Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum (the folks who put on the Davos conference for the establishment’s high flyers) argues for a middle ground between free markets and Chinese-style cronyism.

What kind of capitalism do we want? …we have three models to choose from. The first is “shareholder capitalism,” embraced by most Western corporations, which holds that a corporation’s primary goal should be to maximize its profits. The second model is “state capitalism,” which entrusts the government with setting the direction of the economy, and has risen to prominence in many emerging markets, not least China. …the third has the most to recommend it. “Stakeholder capitalism,” a model I first proposed a half-century ago, positions private corporations as trustees of society… We should seize this moment… To that end, the World Economic Forum is releasing a new “Davos Manifesto,” which states that companies should pay their fair share of taxes, show zero tolerance for corruption, uphold human rights throughout their global supply chains, and advocate for a competitive level playing field…a new measure of “shared value creation” should include “environmental, social, and governance” (ESG) goals as a complement to standard financial metrics. …Business leaders now have an incredible opportunity. By giving stakeholder capitalism concrete meaning, they can move beyond their legal obligations and uphold their duty to society.

Given that per-capita living standards are much lower in China than they are in the United States, I’m baffled that Schwab thinks it’s a good idea to move halfway toward the decrepit Chinese model of cronyism and industrial policy.

Does he think that people in North America and Western Europe should only be twice as rich as people in China instead of four-to-six times richer?

Let’s wrap up. The president of the Business Roundtable just wrote a one-year anniversary review of his group’s campaign for so-called stakeholder capitalism.

It’s been a year since 181 CEOs of America’s largest companies overturned a 22-year-old policy statement that defined a corporation’s principal purpose as maximizing shareholder return. …Companies have held to their commitments. …many Roundtable companies were making substantial investments in worker training, better wages and benefits, and support for struggling communities. They called for increases in the federal minimum wage and paid family medical leave. …In recent weeks, CEOs have made new commitments to promote racial equality and diversity in their own companies. …Far from undermining shareholders or capitalism, the many actions major corporations are taking to support all stakeholders will pay dividends… Business Roundtable CEOs reject…quick-hit, short-term capitalism. They agree with many of the nation’s largest investors that the health of both companies and capitalism depends on investments in all stakeholders.

Sounds very noble and caring, at least for the folks who don’t understand economics.

Which is why I almost laughed out loud when I saw this tweet, which is based on this article published by the Atlantic. The Roundtable is trying to curry favor with statists, but some folks on the left are smart enough to see that it’s all empty posturing.

So what’s my contribution to this debate?

Most of what I would say is captured in the excerpts above. Simply stated, it’s not a good idea to mix big business with big government.

But I will take this opportunity to unveil another one of my theorems.

P.S. Back in 2012, I criticized the Business Roundtable for embracing tax increases on small businesses, so you can see that the Eleventh Theorem of Government is way overdue.

P.P.S. You can peruse the other ten theorems of government by clicking here.

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Politicians and interest groups periodically fan the flames of temporary panic to push for misguided policy. We’ve already seen three big examples this century.

  • The so-called PATRIOT Act was enacted in the feverish aftermath of 9-11, but many of its provisions simply added bureaucracy and gave government new/expanded powers unrelated to fighting terrorism.
  • The TARP bailout allegedly was needed to save us for financial collapse, but in reality was a substitute for a policy (FDIC resolution) that would have recapitalized the banking system without bailing out Wall Street.
  • Obama’s stimulus scheme had to be enacted to supposedly save the nation from another depression, but unemployment soared beyond administration projections and cronies got rich from boondoggles.

The same thing is now happening with the Postal Service, which ostensibly is on the verge of catastrophic collapse because of an expected increase in mail-in voting and sabotage by the Trump Administration.

The real story, though, is that bureaucracy has been losing money at a rapid pace for years and the only sensible solution is privatization. But that would upset the various postal unions and related interest groups, so they’ve created a make-believe crisis in hopes of getting more cash from taxpayers.

And this has nothing to do with Trump vs. Biden.

Let’s look at some rational voices on this topic, starting with this column by Charles Lane of the anti-Trump Washington Post.

Harder to account for is the progressive left’s idealization of the USPS, which began well before the uproar over new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s cost-cutting and its alleged impact on election mail. …when you look at what the agency actually does, a lot of it turns out to be a federally underwritten service for — profit-seeking businesses.Of the 142.6 billion pieces of mail of all kinds that the USPS handled in 2019, 53 percent was advertising material, a.k.a. junk mail, up from 48 percent in 2010. Junk mail makes up an even bigger share — 58 percent — of what individual households receive. …Companies pay a special rate, 19 cents apiece, to send these items (in bulk), as opposed to the 55 cents for a first-class stamp. …Some progressives are stuck in the pre-Internet age. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said, apropos alleged mail delays: “I am not exaggerating when I say this is a life-and-death situation. The Post Office…delivers Social Security checks to seniors who rely on those benefits to survive.” He is exaggerating — a lot. Over 99 percent of all Social Security payments are sent by the more secure route of direct deposit; a 2013 law mandates it. …Crying “privatization” is the perennial scare tactic of progressives who oppose postal reform. That’s an odd one, too: Several European countries and Japan…have either fully or partially privatized their postal services. Actually, privatization is highly unlikely in the United States, given resistance from the two key lobbies — junk mailers and postal unions — that most influence Congress on this issue. …Something must be done to stem the Postal Service’s losses, which have totaled $83.1 billion since 2006, and to reduce its unfunded pension and health-care liabilities, which exceed $120 billion.

Here’s a twitter thread debunking some of the political hysteria about missing mailboxes.

And how about this column by Nick Gillespie of the anti-Trump Reason magazine.

By now you’ve probably heard that President Donald Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy “are sabotaging democracy in plain sight” through a mix of nefarious ploys, ranging from removing “blue Post Office drop boxes” to scrapping mail-sorting machines to allegedly mandating a slowdown in delivering the mail. …The truth is far less incendiary… Here’s a little bit of math that should give voters succor. In 2016, about 140 million total votes were cast in the presidential election…with “nearly 24 percent…cast using by-mail absentee voting.” …Assume, for the sake of argument, that the same number of votes will be cast this year as in 2016. Even if all voters used the mail and posted their ballots on exactly the same day, that would comprise only 30 percent of the amount of mail the USPS says it processes every single day. So if the USPS screws up delivering votes in a timely and efficient manner this fall, it won’t be because of any sinister actions by the White House. It will be because of longstanding, well-documented managerial and cultural problems… For those who are interested in the post office’s chronically bad performance and “unsustainable” situation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has produced a long list of studies on where the problems come from and how they might be addressed. The short version is that Congress has blocked all sorts of serious reforms to an operation that has seen a 33 percent decline in mail volume since 2006.

And here’s another twitter thread that’s worth a look.

 

Or what about this article by Jack Shafer from (probably anti-Trump) Politico.

The USPS really is hurting finanically, and really is worried about delivering ballots on time. It’s legitimate to worry about postal delays botching the vote, if a mass of votes are cast by mail just before Election Day. But don’t extrapolate from news accounts, USPS union protestations and candidate carping… the USPS has sent letters to 46 states expressing its doubts about delivering all the ballots in time to be counted. But, as the Washingtonn Post also mentioned in its story, those letters were in the works before Trump’s new postmaster general took office. …What about those vanishing USPS mail collection boxes? As it turns out, the USPS has been culling the boxes since 2000, when their numbers peaked and 365,000 of them stood sentinel on U.S. streets. Today, their numbers have dwindled to 142,000. Why has the USPS deleted them? Because the volume of first-class has nose-dived.

So what’s actually going on?

As I noted at the beginning of this column, we’re getting scammed. The folks who benefit from the current system want to create a sense of panic so they can get a big bailout for the Postal Service.

The Wall Street Journal (which isn’t anti-Trump, but understands how Washington works) opined accurately on what’s really happening.

Mrs. Pelosi is trying to put on a political show, starring Democrats as the saviors of the post office. She says she wants to pass a bill that “prohibits the Postal Service from implementing any changes to operations or level of service it had in place on January 1.” Also in the mix may be a $25 billion cash infusion. Then Chuck Schumer will demand that the Senate come back to town for the same vote. By the way the letter-carriers union endorsed Joe Biden on the weekend.

My modest contribution to this discussion is to unveil aTenth Theorem of Government.

I’ll close with a prediction that politicians at some point in the future will manufacture a crisis (probably about deficits and debt) in order to impose a value-added tax.

P.S. Here are the nine previous Theorems of Government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.
  • The “Eighth Theorem” explains the motives of those who focus on inequality.
  • The “Ninth Theorem of Government” explains how politics often trump principles.

 

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Compared to most of the world, Japan is a rich country. But it’s important to understand that Japan became rich when the burden of government was very small and there was no welfare state.

Indeed, as recently as 1970, Japan’s fiscal policy was rated by Economic Freedom of the World as being better than what exists today in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, the country has since moved in the wrong direction. Back in 2016, I shared the “most depressing chart about Japan” because it showed that the overall tax burden doubled in just 45 years.

As you might expect, that rising tax burden was accompanied by a rising burden of government spending (fueled in part by enactment of a value-added tax).

And that has not been a good combination for the Japanese economy, as Douglas Carr explains in an article for National Review.

From 1993 to 2019, the U.S. averaged 2.6 percent growth, …far ahead of Japan’s meager 0.9 percent. …What happened? Big government happened… Japanese government spending was just 17.5 percent of the country’s GDP in 1960 but has grown, as illustrated below, to 38.8 percent of GDP today. …the island nation’s growth never recovered. The theory that government spending boosts long-term growth has failed… What government spending does is crowd out investment.

Amen. Japan has become a parody of Keynesian spending.

Here’s a chart from Mr. Carr’s article, which could be entitled “the other most depressing chart about Japan.”

As you can see, the burden of government spending began to climb about 1970 and is now represents a bigger drag on their economy than what we’re enduring in the United States.

Unfortunately, the United States is soon going to follow Japan in that wrong direction according to fiscal projections from the Congressional Budget Office.

Carr warns that bigger government in America won’t work any better than big government in Japan.

Rather than a problem confined to the other side of the world, Japan’s death spiral is a pointed warning to the U.S. The U.S. and Japanese economies are on the same trajectory; Japan is simply further along the big-government, low-growth path. …The United States is at risk of entering a Japanese death spiral.

Here’s another chart from the article showing the inverse relationship between government spending and economic growth.

Moreover, the U.S. numbers may be even worse because of coronavirus-related spending and whatever new handouts that might be created after the election.

The negative relationship of government spending with growth and investment holds with adjustments for cyclical influences such as using ten-year averages or the Congressional Budget Office’s estimates of cyclically adjusted U.S. government spending. CBO data highlight how close the U.S. is to a Japanese-style death spiral. …Of course, CBO’s recent forecast was prepared before the coronavirus shock and does not incorporate spending by a new Democratic government, so this dismal outlook is likely to worsen.

So what’s the solution? Can the United States avoid a Greek-style future?

The author explains how America can be saved.

Boosting growth means restraining government. Restraining government means reengineering entitlements… Economically, it shouldn’t be too difficult to do better. We have an insolvent, low-return government-retirement program along with an insolvent retiree-health program — part of a Rube Goldberg health-care system.

He’s right. To avoid stagnation and decline, we desperately need spending restraint and genuine entitlement reform in the United States.

Sadly, Trump is on the wrong side on that issue and Biden wants to add fuel to the fire by making the programs even bigger.

P.S. Here’s another depressing chart about Japan.

P.P.S. Unsurprisingly, the OECD and IMF have been cheerleading for Japan’s fiscal decline.

P.P.P.S. Japan’s government may win the prize for the strangest regulation and the prize for the most useless government giveaway.

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There’s a reason that Greece is almost synonymous with bad economic policy. The country has endured some terrible prime ministers, most recently Alexis Tsipras of the far-left Syriza Party.

Andreas Papandreou, however, wins the prize for doing the most damage. He dramatically expanded the burden of government spending in the 1980s (the opposite of what Reagan and Thatcher were doing that decade), thus setting the stage for Greece’s eventual fiscal collapse.

But Greek economic policy isn’t a total disaster.

Policy makers in Athens are trying a bit of supply-side tax policy, at least for a limited group of people.

The U.K.-based Times has a report on Greece’s campaign to lure foreigners with low tax rates.

“The logic is very simple: we want pensioners to relocate here,” Athina Kalyva, the Greek head of tax policy at the finance ministry, said. “We have a beautiful country, a very good climate, so why not?” “We hope that pensioners benefiting from this attractive rate will spend most of their time in Greece,” Ms Kalyva told the Observer. Ultimately, the aim is to expand the country’s tax base, she added. “That would mean investing a bit — renting or buying a home.” …The proposal goes further than other countries, however, with the flat tax rate in Greece to apply to other sources of revenue as well as pensions, according to the draft law. “The 7 per cent flat rate will apply to whatever income a person might have, be that rents or dividends as well as pensions,” said Alex Patelis, chief economic adviser to Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the prime minister. “As a reformist government, we have to try to tick all the boxes to boost the economy and change growth models.”

Here are excerpts from a Reuters report.

Greece will offer financial incentives to encourage wealthy individuals to move their tax residence to the country, part of a package of tax relief measures… Greece’s conservative government is keen to attract investments to boost the recovering economy’s growth prospects. …The so-called “non-dom” programme will offer qualified wealthy investors who opt to shift their tax residence to the country a flat tax of 100,000 euros ($110,710) on global incomes earned outside Greece annually. “The tax incentive will run for a duration of up to 15 years and will include the benefit of no inheritance tax for assets outside Greece,” a senior government official told Reuters. One of the requirements to qualify will be residing in Greece for at least 183 days per year and making an investment of at least 500,000 euros within three years. …Investments of 3 million euros will reduce the flat tax to just 25,000 euros. There will also be a grandfathering clause protecting investors from policy changes by future governments.

By the way, Greece isn’t simply offering a flat-rate tax to wealthy foreigners. It’s offering them a flat-amount tax.

In other words, because they simply pay a predetermined amount, their actual tax rate (at least for non-Greek income) shrinks as their income goes up.

And since tax rates matter, this policy is luring well-to-do foreigners to Greece.

That’s good news. I’m a big fan of cross-border tax migration, both inside countries and between countries. And I’ve specifically applauded “citizenship by investment” programs that offer favorable tax rates to foreigners who bring much-needed investment to countries wanting more growth.

But I want politicians to understand that if low tax rates are good for newcomers, those low rates also would be good for locals.

But here’s the bad news. Fiscal policy in Greece is terrible (ranked #158 for “size of government” out of 162 nations according to the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World).

What’s especially depressing is that Greece’s score has actually declined ever since the fiscal crisis began about 10 years ago.

In other words, the country got in trouble because of too much government, and politicians responded by actually making fiscal policy worse (aided and abetted by the fiscal pyromaniacs at the IMF).

And the bottom line is that it’s impossible to have overall low tax rates with a bloated public sector – a lesson that applies in other nations, including the United States.

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I wrote last month about “anarcho-capitalists” who think we don’t need any government because markets can provide everything.

Most people, though, think that there are certain things (such as national defense and the rule of law) that are “public goods” because they won’t exist if they’re not provided by government.

Academics tell us, if we want to be rigorous, that there are two characteristics that define public goods.

  1. They are goods that people won’t buy because they can reap the benefit without paying (economists say this means the good is “non-excludable” while normal people refer to this as the free-rider problem).
  2. They are goods that can be universally shared since one person’s consumption of the good doesn’t limit another person’s consumption of the good (economists say such goods are “non-rival”).

That’s a bit wonky, so let’s consider the example of national defense.

In a world with bad countries (or, to be more accurate, a world with nations governed by bad people), there’s a risk or external aggression. Since most people wouldn’t want to be conquered – and presumably mistreated – by foreign aggressors, national defense is valuable.

But how would it be provided in the absence of government? Maybe Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos would have an incentive to cough up some cash since they have a lot of wealth to protect, but most people (including most rich people) might figure that someone else would cover the cost and they could enjoy protection for free.

This two-part series from Marginal Revolution University explains public goods, using the example of asteroid defense. Here’s an introductory video.

And here’s a follow-up version that has a bit more detail.

I’m writing about this wonky issue because the debate over public goods, at least in some quarters, also is a debate about the size of government.

Consider this image of supposed public goods.

It shows all sorts of activities where governments today play a role, but most of those things aren’t actually public goods since they can be – and sometimes are – privately provided (see examples for fire protection, money, roads, education, health, air traffic control, and parks).

In other words, as Professor Tabarrok noted in the second video, something isn’t a public good just because it’s currently being handled by government.

Indeed, let’s look at the classic example of lighthouses, which often are cited as an example of something that absolutely must be provided by government. Yet scholars have found that the private sector led the way (before being supplanted by government).

For a more prudent view of public goods, Ronald Reagan’s FY1987 budget included a set of principles to help guide whether the federal government should play a role in various areas.

Those six principles could even be boiled down to one principle: Always opt for the private sector whenever possible.

I’ll close by identifying the bureaucracies in Washington that provide genuine public goods. As you can see, much of the federal government (Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Department of Transportation, etc) doesn’t qualify.

To be sure, I’m using a broad-brush approach with this image. Some of the bureaucracies that I crossed out do a few things that qualify as public goods (such as nuclear weapons research at the Department of Energy), and the bureaucracies that didn’t get crossed out do lots of things (such at veterans health care) that should be in the private sector.

The bottom line is that much of the federal government isn’t needed, based on what’s a genuine public good. And for much of America’s history, at least prior to the 1930s, Washington was only a tiny burden because it was only involved in a few areas, such as national defense.

Though it’s worth noting that government could – and should – be much smaller even using an expansive definition of public goods and the role of government.

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Way back in January of 2017, I predicted for a French TV audience that Donald Trump would be a big spender like George Bush instead of a small-government conservative like Ronald Reagan.

Sadly, I was right.

I crunched the numbers earlier this year and showed that Trump has been a big spender, no matter how the data is sliced.

Perhaps most shocking, he’s even allowed domestic spending to increase faster than it did under Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

That’s a terrible track record, especially compared to Reagan’s impressive performance (by the way, these calculations were made before all the coronavirus-related spending, so updated numbers would make Trump look even worse by comparison).

Anyhow, I’m looking at this issue today because of a recent story in the Washington Post.

The Reagan Foundation just told the Trump people to stop using the Gipper’s likeness in their fundraising appeals.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, which runs the 40th president’s library near Los Angeles, has demanded that President Trump and the Republican National Committee (RNC) quit raising campaign money by using Ronald Reagan’s name and likeness. …What came to the foundation’s attention — and compelled officials there to complain — was a fundraising email that went out July 19… The solicitation offered, for a donation of $45 or more, a “limited edition” commemorative set featuring two gold-colored coins, one with an image of Reagan and one with an image of Trump. …Proceeds from the coin sales went to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising operation that benefits both the Trump campaign and the RNC. …In the 1990s, both Reagan and his wife Nancy signed legal documents that granted the foundation sole rights to their names, likenesses and images. …the RNC accepted the foundation’s demand regarding the fundraising emails.

It’s unclear why the Reagan Foundation made the request.

For what it’s worth, I hope officials were motivated at least in part by disappointment with Trump’s anti-conservative record on government spending (and also on trade).

Simply stated, Trump is no Reagan.

While I’m a big fan of the Gipper, I don’t pretend he had a perfect track record. But I think it’s correct to say that his goal was to advance liberty by shrinking government, even if there were occasional detours.

For instance, Holman Jenkins noted in his Wall Street Journal column that Reagan always had the right long-run goals even when he made short-run comprises on trade that were unfortunate.

Reagan slapped import quotas on cars, motorcycles, forklifts, memory chips, color TVs, machine tools, textiles, steel, Canadian lumber and mushrooms. There was no market meltdown. Donald Trump hit foreign steel and aluminum, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 600 points… The real difference is that Reagan’s protectionist devices were negotiated. They were acts of cartel creation… This was unattractive but it wasn’t a disaster, and Reagan’s protectionism quickly fell away when a global upswing began. …Mr. Trump wants a spectacle with himself at the center. …His confused and misguided ideas about trade are one of his few long and deeply held policy commitments.

And if you need more evidence, look at what Reagan said about trade here, here, and here.

Can you imagine Trump giving such remarks? Or even understanding the underlying principles?

There are also important differences in the populism of Trump and Reagan, as explained by Jonah Goldberg of the American Enterprise Institute.

…there are different kinds of conservative populism. Until recently, right-wing populism manifested itself in the various forms of the tea party, which emphasized limited government and fiscal restraint. That populism…is very different from Trump’s version. …Reagan’s themes and rhetoric were decidedly un-Trumpian. The conservative populist who delivered “A Time for Choosing” used broadly inclusive language, focusing his ire at a centralized government that reduced a nation of aspiring individuals to “the masses.” …Reagan’s populist rhetoric was informed by a moderate, big-hearted temperament, a faith in American exceptionalism… He warned of concentrated power that corrodes self-government.

I’ll close with the observation that Trump has enacted some good policies, especially with regard to taxes and red tape.

The bottom line is that I’m not trying to convince anyone to vote for Trump or to vote against Trump.

Instead, I simply want people to be consistent and principled advocates of economic liberty instead of blind partisans.

As explained in my Ninth Theorem of Government.

In other words, I don’t care if you’re an enthusiastic supporter of Trump. Just don’t let that support lead you to somehow rationalize that wasteful spending and protectionism are somehow good ideas.

And I don’t care if you’re an enthusiastic never-Trumper. Just don’t let that hostility lead you to somehow decide that tax cuts and deregulation are bad ideas.

P.S. In my speeches over the past few years, I’ve run into many people who tell me that Trump must be good because the media hates him the same way they hated Reagan. It’s certainly true that the establishment press has visceral disdain for both of them. I’ll simply point out that media hostility is a necessary but not sufficient condition for determining whether a Republican believes in smaller government.

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There are many reasons to be depressed about Italy.

Bad policy is part of the problem, of course, but this chart shows that the country also is facing a demographic crisis. The blue lines show that there are now more deaths than births.

The chart comes from a Bloomberg column by Flavia Rotondi and Giovanni Salzano, and they explain some of the adverse consequences of this demographic change.

Italy isn’t just in an economic slump, its population is also sagging, pushing the country into its biggest demographic crisis in more than a century. The number of people in the country fell for a fifth year in 2019, and deaths exceeded births by almost 212,000, the biggest gap since 1918. …Italy already has huge long-term economic challenges, and the population trends, if they continue, are going to make surmounting them even harder. Italy won’t have enough young workers, and funding a rapidly aging population will strain an already stretched fiscal situation. Pension costs now amount to almost 17% off the economy. …“With an aging population and a consistent decrease of workers who pay taxes, our retirement system may go haywire” said Pietro Reichlin, a professor of economics.

Politicians naturally will want to compensate for these changes by raising the tax burden.

But Italy already is at a breaking point because of punitive taxation. Writing for the Foundation for Economic Education, Daniel Di Martino discusses that nation’s dirigiste system.

Italy’s problem, similar to many of its southern European neighbors, is an oppressively high tax burden, irresponsible welfare programs that encourage high measured unemployment and increase the debt, and high levels of regulation. …the share of average wages collected by the Italian government via income and social security taxes is 48 percent, among the highest in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In addition, Italy imposes a value-added tax of 22 percent on most goods and services, one of the highest in Europe. Plus, Italy’s corporate, capital gains, gift, and myriad other taxes are passed on to individuals and borne directly by workers. …At the same time, Italy’s complex regulations are a barrier to starting or continuing productive activities. A study by economist Raffaela Giordano of the Bank of Italy concluded that the main reason behind Italy’s underperformance was burdensome regulations and corrupt and inefficient government structure.

Adam O’Neal makes similar points about bad policy in a column for the Wall Street Journal.

Even before the pandemic, Italy hadn’t recovered fully from the 2008-09 financial crisis. Unemployment hovered around 10% in 2019. Adjusting for inflation, the average Italian worker earned the same as he did 20 years ago. Italian banks were Europe’s weakest. …What ails Italy? …Italy’s greatest challenge is a gargantuan government that destroys wealth as efficiently as the private economy creates it. …In 2018 government revenue was 42% of GDP, nearly 8 points above the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average. Yet profligate outlays—Rome spent 16.2% of GDP on public pensions in 2015—brought debt to about 135% of GDP last year.

The net effect of all this misguided policy is that Italy’s economy is moribund.

In his column for Bloomberg, Professor Tyler Cowen summarizes the problem.

One striking fact about Italy is that, over the last 20 years, growth in per capita income has been close to zero. …a zero-growth environment cannot be stable forever. …If the pie doesn’t grow, eventually it becomes harder to sustain productive activity… Aging is another reason economic growth is necessary. …many countries (including Italy) have expensive pension systems. Someone has to pay the bill, and without innovation and economic growth, taxes will have to rise. That in turn discourages work, pushing people into untaxed black-market activity, necessitating higher tax rates, and the vicious cycle starts again.

And when you combine bad demographics and bad policy, that not only means stagnation in the short run, it also could mean fiscal crisis in the long run.

Except “long run” may be just around the corner.

Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute warns that an Italian fiscal crisis will make the mess in Greece seem trivial by comparison.

…markets are displaying remarkable complacency toward a rapidly deteriorating Italian political and economic situation. They are doing so in a manner that is painfully reminiscent of how complacent they were in 2009 on the eve of the Greek sovereign debt crisis. This could have major consequences for global financial markets considering that the Italian economy…has around 10 times as much public debt as Greece had at the time of its crisis. …One has to hope that while markets might be turning a blind eye to Italy’s deteriorating economic and political fundamentals, global economic policymakers are not. As experience with the Greek sovereign debt crisis reaffirmed, crises often take a lot longer than one would have thought to occur, but when they do occur they do so at a very much faster rate than one would have expected.

Some people argue that a fiscal crisis can be avoided if the European Central Bank buys up Italy’s government debt.

That certainly can avert a panic, at least for a while, but this approach can cause a different set of problems.

Joseph Sternberg opines for the Wall Street Journal that the European Central Bank’s easy-money policy has backfired by giving politicians in Rome the leeway to postpone desperately needed reforms.

If the ECB had not stepped in as a buyer of government debt, Rome long since would have faced fiscal catastrophe. Only a miracle—or €365 billion in ECB purchases of Italian sovereign debt since 2015—can explain how in recent years a country whose debt has ballooned to 130% of gross domestic product paid nearly the same interest rate as Germany… Even after selling so many sovereign bonds to the central bank, Italy’s banks continue to be large holders of their government’s debt. Such bonds constitute around 10% of Italian bank assets, nearly three times the eurozone average. …Mr. Draghi hoped his interventions would give wayward governments such as in Rome breathing room to overhaul the supply side of their economies—deregulating markets, privatizing state assets, trimming welfare programs and the like. But Rome has mainly slid backward.

While intervention by the European Central Bank isn’t the solution to Italy’s problems (and may actually make problems worse), this is also a good opportunity to make the related point that the euro currency also shouldn’t be blamed for the nation’s stagnation.

I’m not a big fan of the European Union and the crowd in Brussels, but Italy’s challenges overwhelmingly are the fault of policies adopted by Italian politicians.

Indeed, if you look at the data from the most-recent edition of the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World, you can see monetary policy isn’t a problem. Instead, the nation’s big impediment to prosperity (highlighted in red) is terrible fiscal policy.

To put this data in perspective, Italy has the next-to-lowest-ranked economy in Western Europe, with only Greece having less economic liberty.

The numbers from the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom tell a very similar story.

If you peruse the data from the most-recent edition of that publication, you’ll see that Italy gets weak scores for its approach to labor issues, the judiciary, and taxes.

But it gets an utterly dismal score (highlighted in red) for government spending.

Sadly, there’s no political party in Italy that wants to solve the problem of excessive spending – even though I explained how it could be done while in Milan many years ago. And without spending restraint, that means it’s almost impossible to adopt pro-growth tax reform.

P.S. No wonder some people in Sardinia want to secede from Italy and instead become part of Switzerland.

P.P.S. Amazingly, a New York Times’ columnist actually argued that the United States should be more like Italy.

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Back in 2017, the Center for Freedom and Prosperity released this video, which shows that free markets and small government are the best recipe for poor nations that want to become rich nations.

The CF&P video was motivated in part by a need to debunk international bureaucracies such as the OECD and IMF, which abandoned the “Washington Consensus” for economic liberalization and instead have been making the odd argument that prosperity can be achieved with higher taxes and a bigger burden of government spending.

Needless to say, neither of these international organizations has bothered to explain how such dirigiste policies produce more growth.

But the politicians who fund and control such bureaucracies doubtlessly appreciate the message.

You probably won’t be surprised that the United Nations also is on the wrong side of this issue.

A recent report from the New York City-based group regurgitates the anti-market viewpoint.

The argument that pro-market policies automatically benefit the poor is likewise at odds with the evidence. Traditional pro-growth polices, such as lower corporate tax rates, labor ‘reforms,’ deregulation, austerity-driven cuts to services, and privatization can have devastating effects on the well-being of poor people and the state’s capacity to reduce poverty. …There are various ways to reduce extreme inequality, but redistribution is an essential element. …Significant redistribution is indispensable. …Fair and equitable taxation can lay the foundations for a society that respects and promotes well-being for all. …Low tax revenue has hobbled the capacity of governments to undertake redistributive policies. …The time has come to take social protection seriously.

For those who don’t follow these issues closely, “social protection” is the buzz phrase to describe an ever-bigger welfare state.

As you might imagine, the report doesn’t provide any evidence to justify the assertion that higher taxes and bigger government will lead to less poverty and deprivation.

Which is an excuse to recycle my “never-answered question” since I’m still waiting for someone to show me a nation that became rich with the types of statist policy that the U.N. has embraced.

The most remarkable part of the report is buried toward the end. The United Nations actually argues that the poor will be better off if there is less economic growth.

A ‘pro-poor’ growth scenario necessitates a far smaller increase in global GDP and eradicates poverty much sooner. If every country reduced its Gini index by 1 percent per year, it would have a larger impact on global poverty than increasing each country’s annual growth one percentage point above current forecasts.

This is bad math, bad logic, and terrible economics.

And it assumes politicians can deftly re-slice a shrinking pie so that poor somehow get more than they have now (while ignoring Thomas Sowell’s sage warning that wealth can only be redistributed one time).

I’d like the United Nations (or any person or group) to show me a single example – at any point in world history – where less growth has improved conditions for poor people.

For what it’s worth, I can show lots of evidence that growth is the best recipe for helping the less fortunate, even though folks on the left may not be happy since rich people also benefit from economic growth.

I can’t resist pointing out one additional passage from the report. And this one was on the first page.

Poverty is a political choice.

In reality, poverty is the normal state of human existence (an observation that Tim Worstall also made in his CapX column criticizing the U.N. report).

What’s unusual – as explained in videos by Don Boudreaux and Deirdre McCloskey – is that parts of the world became rich beginning a couple of hundred years ago thanks to a new approach called capitalism.

(Though I suppose those five words from the U.N. report can be viewed as accurate. After all, governments perpetuate poverty by failing to copy the good policies of places such as Hong Kong and Singapore. But that’s not what the report means. Instead, we’re supposed to believe that politicians are allowing poverty by not choosing big government.)

P.S. If there was a contest for worst analysis from an international bureaucracy, I still think the IMF deserves to win since it has explicitly embraced the crazy notion that it’s okay to hurt the poor so long as the rich are hurt even more.

P.P.S. Indeed, the report I’m writing about today isn’t even the U.N.’s worst publication. That “honor” belongs to the 2018 report that blatantly lied about the prevalence of poverty in the United States.

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Two days ago, I looked at top income tax rates for the various states.

Yesterday, I shared the data for the states on sales tax rates.

The big takeaway from those two sources of data is that California politicians are very greedy.

But are they the greediest politicians in the country? What if we also measure other sources of tax revenue (property taxes, excise taxes, severance taxes, etc)?

And what about the various fees and charges that also are imposed by state and local governments?

To account for all these factors, we obviously need a comprehensive measure. And since the real cost of government is how much it is spending (regardless of whether the outlays are financed by taxes or borrowing), the most accurate approach is to calculate the relative spending burdens imposed by state and local governments.

The Census Bureau actually collects that data (albeit with a lag, so the most-recent data is for 2017).

But you don’t simply want to look at total spending by state and local governments. You also want to adjust for population (specifically, the population data for 2017) so we can calculate the per-capita burden of state spending.

Moreover, it’s also important to understand that some states have varying levels of income (for historic reasons, policy reasons, and difference in the cost of living). So if you want to calculate the economic burden of state and local spending, you also need data on state personal income for 2017.

So I put all these numbers into an excel file and crunched the numbers to see how the 50 states (plus Washington, DC) compare based on these two ways of showing fiscal burdens.

The following table shows the good states, at least relatively speaking. I’m amazed to see Connecticut and New Jersey in the top 10 for spending as a share of personal income. This merits further investigation, but one obvious takeaway is that it’s good to be a high-income state.

The goal, of course, should be to appear on both lists. On that basis, Idaho, Florida, and Nevada deserve praise.

But this three-part series isn’t designed to highlight the good states.

We want to know which states have the greediest politicians. And greed is being measured by their propensity to buy votes by spending other people’s money.

Once again, we’ll show the spending data both as a share of personal income and as a per-capita calculation. On this basis, Alaska is terrible (the politicians spend oil money with reckless abandon), as is the District of Columbia.

Wyoming also is a state with profligate politicians. It has no income tax and a modest sales tax, but lawmakers (just like in Alaska) can’t resist buying votes with all the money generated by energy taxes (which is why I penalized the state when writing about good state tax systems back in 2015).

This explains why North Dakota is on both lists as well.

If we focus on states that don’t get lots of money from energy taxes, than New York and Oregon deserve special scorn for appearing in both columns.

P.S. One area that requires further exploration (partially explained by the Third Theorem of Government) is the impact of 1,386 federal transfer programs that subsidize/encourage more spending by state and local governments.

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I’ve already written that state governments shouldn’t get a bailout from Washington.

Today, let’s specifically focus on California, a beautiful state that – as explained in this video – is being ruined by an even-worse-than-average collection of politicians.

This video was produced in 2018, so it goes without saying that California is in even worse shape today, in part because of a coronavirus-caused economic downturn.

But the Golden State also is in trouble because the politicians in Sacramento have been spending like drunken sailors (with apologies to drunken sailors for that unfair comparison).

That’s only part of the problem. California also imposes onerous taxes, an approach that is causing a steady exodus of households and business to states with better policy.

And when you consider other policies, the net result is that the Golden State is ranked only #48 out of 50 for overall economic freedom.

Should this bad track record be rewarded?

Writing yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Parsky is willing to give a bailout if strings are attached.

California is facing a $54 billion budget deficit… To help address the shortfall, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants billions of federal dollars. Not so fast. Any bailout should come with strings attached. Washington should tie assistance to tax reform… California’s finances are too dependent on the personal income tax, which is the most volatile form of taxation. California’s revenues from personal income taxes amount to about 67% of all state revenues (up from 11% in 1950). Moreover, less than 1% of taxpayers contribute more than 50% of the tax revenue. The result is that when the economy softens and people earn less—or move out of the state—tax revenue plunges. …A survey of California residents showed that 53% of them are considering leaving.

Here’s Mr. Parsky’s specific proposal.

…these developments underscore the need for dramatic tax reform. …the California Legislature created a bipartisan commission, which I chaired… The commission recommended that California reduce its dependence on the personal income tax by…dropping the top rate from 9.3% to 6.5% and reducing or eliminating many deductions. The commission also recommended eliminating the corporate and sales-and-use taxes, replacing them with a broad new “business net receipts tax.” …A few years later, Gov. Jerry Brown and state policy makers did the opposite…they put forward a statewide initiative that raised the top marginal rate to 13.3%, thus making state revenues even more dependent on a volatile tax and California’s income-tax rate the highest in the nation. …there is an opportunity for the Trump administration to link any federal assistance to an overhaul of the way California taxes its residents.

For all intents and purposes, the author wants to extort California into adopting better (or less-worse) tax policy.

And if Trump (being a big spender) decided to bail out the states, it would be good to attach requirements so that there would be a silver lining to that dark cloud.

But here’s a better approach: Tell the politicians in Sacramento that they caused the mess and it’s their responsibility to fix it. Taxpayers elsewhere in America shouldn’t have to cough up cash to keep California from committing suicide.

Especially since it would simply be a matter of time before the Golden State’s politicians reneged on the deal and re-imposed class-warfare tax policy.

The bottom line, as illustrated by this cartoon from Michael Ramirez, is that California is on a downward trajectory and I don’t see any feasible way of reversing the trend.

P.S. Ramirez has a comfortable lead (as of today) in the best-political-cartoonist contest.

P.P.S. Paul Krugman attacked me a few years ago for being pessimistic about California. He was wrong then and he’s even more wrong today.

P.P.P.S. Some leftists in California have advocated for secession. I wonder if they still have that view.

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It doesn’t get as much attention as basket-case nations such as Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, or Cuba, but Argentina is one of the world’s worst-governed nations.

Though the most damning indictment, in my humble opinion, is that Argentina in the late 1940s used to be one of the world’s 10-richest nations.

But beginning in 1946 under Juan Peron’s statist presidency (much beloved by Pope Francis for inexplicable reasons), policy shifted to the left and Argentina become one of the world’s least market-oriented nations.

Not surprisingly, the country’s relative living standards then began a steady decline, thus providing us with a painful lesson that rich nations that adopt bad policy don’t remain rich.

Recent history hasn’t made things better. Populist-left governments were in charge from 2003-2015, followed by an ineffective right-reformist government (akin to Nixon-Bush-Trump-style Republicanism) from 2015-2019, and now the left is back in charge.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that Argentina has bloated, corrupt, and ineffective government.

Here are some details from a column that wrote last September for Project Syndicate.

Argentina has fallen back into crisis for the simple reason that not enough has changed since the last debacle. …Argentinian authorities succumbed to the same temptation that tripped up their predecessors. In an effort to compensate for slower-than-expected improvements in domestic capacity, they permitted excessive foreign-currency debt, aggravating what economists call the “original sin”: a significant currency mismatch between assets and liabilities, as well as between revenues and debt servicing. …Undeterred by Argentina’s history of chronic volatility and episodic illiquidity – including eight prior defaults – creditors gobbled up as much debt as the country and its companies would issue… The search for higher yields has been encouraged by unusually loose monetary policies… Then there is the IMF, which readily stepped in once again to assist Argentina… So far, Argentina has received $44 billion under the IMF’s largest-ever funding arrangement.

This latest bailout is a classic case of throwing good money after bad, which seems to be the IMF’s primary purpose – especially with regards to Argentina.

Later that same month, Anne Krueger weighed in with another column for the same publication.

Argentina is…chronically overspending and over-regulating until it is forced to go to the International Monetary Fund for a new round of treatment. In 2001, the country suffered a major crisis, and…entered into an IMF loan program. But its debt restructuring was messy, and policies to address its underlying structural problems – lowering trade barriers, allowing public-utility prices to rise – were pursued halfheartedly or not at all. …government spending and fiscal deficits began to increase once again. Consolidated public expenditures rose from a low of 22.9% of GDP in 2002 to 30.1% of GDP in 2008, and to 42.2% in 2015. …For an economy as distorted as Argentina’s, there is no medicine that can prevent a period of painful adjustment. …By early 2018, Argentina was in another crisis. …in June 2018 the IMF approved a $50 billion loan program, the largest in the Fund’s history. …The problem, once again, is that the medicine was not strong enough. At the patient’s insistence, the measures were too mild to be effective, and more difficult structural reforms were delayed. …the country needs structural reforms, especially a further reduction in the size of the government sector, starting with pensions. More gradualism will only prolong the pain and allow political opposition to mount.

Ms. Krueger is correct. Only good policy will cure Argentina’s woes.

Sadly, bailouts actually undermine that goal give the country’s awful politicians an excuse to postpone necessary reforms.

Though there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of Argentine statism. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out earlier this year that we now have a real-world example of democratic socialism.

…the Nordic nations are “firmly rooted in capitalism and free markets,” wrote Michael Cembalest of JP Morgan Asset Management in a note last summer… The closest Cembalest could find to a true democratic socialist state, at least by his definition, is Argentina, “which has defaulted 7 times since its independence in 1816, which has seen the largest relative standard of living decline in the world since 1900, and which is on the brink of political and economic chaos again in 2019.” …Argentina met most of the following criteria: a) higher personal and corporate tax rates, and higher government spending; b) more worker protections restricting the ability of companies to hire and fire, and less flexibility for companies to set wages based on worker productivity and/or to hire foreign labor; c) more reliance on regulation, more constraints on real estate development; d) more anti-trust enforcement and more state intervention in product markets; and a shift away from a shareholder-centric business model; e) protections for workers and domestic industries through tariff and non-tariff barriers, and more constraints on capital inflows and outflows.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of so-called democratic socialism.

If you prefer hard data, this chart shows that Argentina has the world’s worst economic performance over the past 100 years.

And I imagine the country would look even worse if 1945 was the base year.

Let’s close with this recently tweeted video from Human Progress, which shows relative levels of per-capita economic output over a 100-year period for 16 different nations.

Pay specific attention to how high Argentina was ranked in the late 1940s if you want to appreciate the awful consequences of Peronist statism.

P.S. Also make sure to note that Chile was in last place in the 1970s and then significantly improved in the rankings by liberalizing the economy and reducing the burden of government in the 1980s. Yet another reminder that the world is a laboratory and every experiment tells us the same thing: Statism produces bad results and markets deliver good results.

 

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Having written more than 5000 columns over the past ten-plus years, I’ve learned that policy analysis doesn’t “go viral.”

But I got a small taste of what that would be like when I shared an image in 2016 showing that the right kind of class warfare pits productive people (earners, entrepreneurs, and protectors) against looters (predators, cronies, and rent-seekers).

In other words, rich vs poor is the wrong way to divide society.

Today, I have another image that also has a very powerful message. I don’t know if it will go viral, but it has a very appropriate and accurate message.

For instance, America is now dealing with a lot of controversy regarding occasional police misbehavior and sometimes-violent protests, but it’s hopefully accurate to say that most cops and most protestors are good people

And the same is true for clergy and doctors, even though both groups have a few bad apples.

But notice the group at the bottom.

In part, this image is designed for humorous purposes (and it’s always fun to mock politicians).

But there’s also a serious point. Why are there so many bad and corrupt people in government? There are two possible explanations.

  1. Shallow, insecure, and power-hungry people are drawn to politics because they want to control the lives of others.
  2. Good people run for political office, but then slowly but surely get corrupted because of “public choice” incentives.

Needless to say, it’s possible for both answers to be partially accurate.

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Before our depressing discussion today about the fiscal impact of entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EITC, Food Stamps, welfare, and Obamacare, etc), here’s a video of how it all began.

I think this is a great introduction to the issue, particularly since you learn how “public choice” (i.e., politicians engaging in self-serving behavior) played a key role in the development of today’s welfare state.

But if you don’t have the time to watch a long video, here are four key things to understand.

  1. Entitlements (budget geeks sometimes use the term “mandatory spending”) are programs that automatically give people money if they meet certain requirements (such as reaching a certain age or having income below a certain level).
  2. Since these programs automatically give people money, they are not part of the annual appropriations process (the “discretionary spending” parts of the budget that are determined on a yearly basis).
  3. Some entitlement programs are “means tested” and designed to funnel money to low-income individuals. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “unearned benefits.”
  4. Some entitlement programs are “social insurance” since people pay specific tax in exchange for specific benefits. This type of spending is sometimes referred to as “earned benefits” (though in many cases recipient receive much more than they paid).

By the way, there’s one additional thing to understand.

Indeed, it may be the most important thing to understand if you care about America’s fiscal and economic future.

5.  Entitlement programs are a slow-motion fiscal train wreck.

Let’s look at a new study authored by James Capretta of the America Enterprise Institute. He also has some sobering observations on the history of entitlement programs.

The growing expense of entitlement programs has occurred steadily for more than a half century and is reflected in the shifting distribution of federal spending activity. …by the early 1960s, two-thirds of all spending continued to require approval by the House and Senate appropriations committees each year, and less than a third was spent on entitlement programs. … By 2019, nearly two-thirds of all spending in the budget was for entitlement programs, and less than a third went to annually appropriated accounts.

If you prefer this information visually, here are a couple of pie charts from the study.

While there are dozens of entitlement programs, the big three are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The largest entitlement programs are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Together, they now make up nearly half of all federal spending. Their combined growth over the past half century is the primary source of intensifying fiscal pressure. …In 2019, combined federal spending on them was 9.8 percent of GDP, up from 3.7 percent in 1970. CBO expects them to cost 17.2 percent of GDP in 2050, which is almost equal to the average annual revenue collected by the federal government from 1970 to 2019.

And here’s how they’ve been consuming ever-larger shares of America’s economic output.

What’s driving this ever-increasing fiscal burden?

In part, it’s because we have more and more old people and they are living longer.

So what does all this mean?

Capretta points out that uncontrolled entitlement spending may lead to a debt crisis.

I don’t disagree, but I think that’s a secondary concern. The real problem is that government spending will become an ever-larger economic burden. And that will hinder growth whether it’s financed by borrowing or taxes.

Speaking of taxes, here’s the chart from the study that deserves our close attention. It shows the relationship between demographics, benefit generosity, and tax burdens.

Here’s how Capretta describes the relationship.

…for each of the stipulated replacement rates (25, 50, and 75 percent), the tax rate necessary to keep the program solvent rises with increases in the aged dependency ratio. This explains why social insurance taxes in many aging societies have been increased to high levels in recent decades.

I’ve taken the liberty of augmenting the chart to show how these factors interact (though the order of #1 and #2 doesn’t matter).

The bottom line is that the United States is on track to become a high-tax, European-style welfare state if fiscal policy is left on autopilot.

In other words, unless there’s genuine entitlement reform, future Americans will be condemned to lower living standards.

P.S. Here’s some more history. In a column for the American Institute for Economic Research, Richard Ebeling looked at British history to explain how the private sector played a role in social insurance before being displaced by government.

Throughout the 19th century, a primary means for the provision of what today we call the “social safety nets” was by the private sector outside of government. The British Friendly Societies were mutual assistance associations that emerged to provide death benefits for the wives and children of the breadwinner who had passed away. But they soon offered a wide array of other mutual insurance services, including health care coverage, retirement pension programs, unemployment insurance, savings clubs to purchase a family house, and a variety of others. …by the end of the 19th century around two-thirds to three-quarters of the entire British population was covered by one or more of their programs and insurances. The research also discovered that a large majority of the subscribers were in the lower income brackets of the time… What stands out is that these were all private and voluntary associations and exchanges, in which the government paid little or no role.

On a related note, here’s an excellent short video on the English “poor laws” from the 1800s.

P.P.S. In addition to the fiscal burden of entitlement programs, there’s also a major problem in the way these programs discourage work.

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Every so often, I’ll notice a tweet that has some remarkable characteristic.

Today, we’re going to add to this collection.

The Democratic National Committee sent out a tweet back in April that seems like it should have been issued instead by the Libertarian National Committee.

My answer to the DNC’s question is “never.” That’s why I’m a libertarian.

Even when I grudgingly acknowledge that something is a legitimate function of government, I’m never tempted to say or think that “things seem to be going smoothly.”

That’s true when looking at what happens in Washington, what happens in the states, and what happens at the local level.

Needless to say, the DNC wasn’t trying to recruit libertarians. The goal was to condemn Trump’s governing style, specifically with reference to a story about the administration’s chaotic approach to the coronavirus.

And I certainly agree that Trump gives critics plenty of ammunition.

But there are plenty of similar episodes of malfeasance and incompetence during the Obama years. And the Bush years. And in every preceding White House.

The bottom line (as suggested by my collection of “Government in Cartoons“) is that Washington at best is a clumsy oaf. And quite often is a bloated bully.

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As indicated by one of my columns last week, I’m a big believer in federalism.

Indeed, I’ve even proposed that Washington shouldn’t operate any social programs. No food stamps. No Medicaid. No redistribution programs of any kind.

Such programs, to the extent they should exist, should be handled by state and local governments.

The welfare reform legislation under Bill Clinton is an example of how to move in the right direction. A top-down program from Washington was turned into a block grant, and then state and local governments got the freedom to choose policies that might actually help the poor become self-sufficient instead of being trapped in dependency.

Not pure libertarianism, of course, but still an example of progress. And we got good results.

Given this track record, I was very interested to see a column in today’s New York Times by Ezekial Emanuel and Rahm Emanuel on the topic of federal-state fiscal relations.

Medicaid and unemployment insurance…need permanent institutional reform and modernization. …the next stimulus package…should then be…a…federal-state Grand Bargain would solve festering problems in health care and unemployment assistance Years of political experience show that no matter how imperative and sensible, a policy’s chances of success are diminished unless it delivers political benefits. This bargain would create a victory for both parties.

This sounds intriguing. And potentially even desirable.

There’s no question, after all, that the current Medicaid system desperately needs reform. And the unemployment program also is a mess, luring people into joblessness.

So what exactly are the Emanuel brothers proposing? What is the “Grand Bargain” that offers benefits for both sides?

Sadly, it turns out that their bipartisan rhetoric is just an excuse for bigger government.

The bargain, which we call American Modernization Initiative…the federal government to assume the costs and administration of Medicaid and unemployment insurance, the states would have to agree to use freed up resources — a quarter of a trillion dollars per year — to invest in education and infrastructure. …The Grand Bargain is not only good policy, but good politics. …Governors would no longer be responsible for large programs… With the American Modernization Initiative, the constant, bitter battles over cutting state programs to fund growing Medicaid costs will disappear.

Yes, you read correctly. Their idea of a “bargain” is that the federal government agrees to spend more money so that that state governments will then have the ability to spend more money.

Even Republicans aren’t stupid enough to go along with that kind of deal.

So I’ll propose an alternative.

According to Chris Edwards, there are now nearly 1,400 programs involving some sort of link or overlap between the federal government and state governments.

The biggest of these programs is Medicaid, accounting for 56 percent of the overall spending.

So why not give the states a choice: They either take full responsibility for Medicaid – including the financing after some transition period. Or they take responsibility for the other 1,385 programs (probably more by now) programs – assuming, again, they are responsible for the financing after a transition period.

Regardless of their choice, the end result would be a system where there’s a reasonably significant shift toward federalism. And perhaps we would add a bit of clarity to the blurry line that currently sets the boundary between what’s Washington’s job and what’s the role of state governments.

And maybe, just maybe, there wouldn’t be as much wasteful leakage as we have now.

P.S. For what it’s worth, there’s strong academic evidence that decentralized governments produce better outcomes.

P.P.S. Federalism doesn’t only apply to income-redistribution programs. We also should eliminate any role for Washington in areas like education and transportation.

P.P.P.S. Here’s the data on the history of redistribution spending in developed nations.

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There are plenty of people on the left who write serious and substantive articles about fiscal policy. For instance, I strongly disagree with many of the policy prescriptions from the IMF and the OECD, but those international bureaucracies are reasonably rigorous with data.

Heck, they even use real data when they’re being dishonest.

Some people, though, churn out analysis that is utterly disconnected from reality. I’m even thinking of creating a Fiscal Fantasyland Club to commemorate their fact-deprived writings.

  1. In a column for the Washington Post, Dana Milbank blamed the “disastrous philosophy” of “anti-government conservatism” for leaving the federal government without the resources to fight the coronavirus.
  2. In an article for the Atlantic, George Packer told readers that the federal government screwed up because it has been subjected to “steady defunding” by right-wing ideologues intent on “squeezing it dry.”
  3. Another columnist for the Washington Post, Dan Balz, claims that the botched response to coronavirus was caused by “underinvestment” and “hollowing out” of the federal budget.

The reason we may need a special club (akin to my collection of “Poverty Hucksters“) is that all of these writers are wildly wrong.

Even a cursory look at budget data confirms that the federal government has been getting bigger over time.

Much bigger.

As such, only someone who is completely ignorant or totally dishonest is capable of writing an article based on the notion that there have been reductions in the burden of federal spending.

If I create this club, I know who will be fourth member.

Writing for the Bulwark, Richard North Patterson argues that President Trump’s personal shortcomings are somehow connected to Reagan-type opposition to big government.

He starts with one of my favorite quotes from The Gipper and then tells us that this type of hostility to statism is no longer appropriate or desirable.

In 1986, Ronald Reagan cheerfully gibed: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” Then it seemed amusing. But 34 years later, the convergence of COVID-19 and a racial conflagration makes Reagan’s quip sound myopic. …Only government can ensure the safety of our food and drugs and protect our natural environment. And government can help navigate our racial fissures, and provide the economic and public health interventions indispensable to combating a deadly pandemic.

Given that Washington’s response to the coronavirus has been spectacularly incompetent, well beyond what even libertarians would have predicted, it’s remarkable that Patterson thinks this is a moment in time when people should embrace big government.

And let’s not forget that today’s racial unrest was triggered by government misbehavior, enabled by corrupt deals between local politicians and government employee unions.

But the real problem with Patterson’s rhetoric is that he seems to assume that an argument for some government is the same as an argument for lots of government.

He’s obviously not familiar with the Rahn Curve, which is based on the insight that some government may be good for growth (assuming the outlays are for core public goods) but that lots of government (particularly when spending is for consumption and redistribution) is bad for growth.

To be fair, I understand why Patterson, who is mostly known for being a very successful novelist, isn’t familiar with the academic research on the growth-maximizing size of government.

But since he’s decided to pontificate on these issues, he should feel an obligation to know some basic data.

For instance, he’s a wealthy man and presumably has traveled the world. Hasn’t he noticed that nations with big governments don’t do a better job of providing public goods – even if we use an expansive concept of what government should be doing?

Let’s look at some more of his article.

Patterson not only rejects the notion of smaller government, he seems to embrace bigger government.

What was once a philosophical preference for limited government has degenerated into phobia. “Long before Trump,” GOP strategist Stuart Stevens observes, “the Republican Party adopted as a key article of faith that more government was bad. But somewhere along the way, it became ‘all government is bad.’ Now we are in a crisis that can be solved only by massive government intervention.” …Witnessing so much death and disturbance, one cannot but ponder how poorly Reagan’s casual nostrum has aged. Farhad Manjoo nails it: “The most comforting words I can think of now, amid so much uncertainty, chaos and confusion, are these: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

There’s a lot of nonsense in those few sentences. Regarding Manjoo’s quote, I’ll simply repeat my earlier observation about how the federal government has hindered rather than helped the fight against the coronavirus.

The quote from Stuart Stevens is even stranger, at least the the latter part, because it is so completely contrary to real-world data.

While it is true that Reagan briefly reoriented Republicans and did a good job of controlling spending while he was in office, every other Republican in recent history has been a big spender.

They’ve even increased domestic spending at a faster rate than Democratic presidents.

Yet Stevens wants people to believe that’s the track record of a party that thinks “all government is bad.”

I also want to debunk the notion that there’s been a “decades-long gutting of government,” as asserted in the subtitle of Patterson’s article.

Here’s a chart that I shared back in April, which shows that federal spending has tripled since 1980 – and that’s after adjusting for inflation.

If you read Patterson’s entire article, you’ll find that he mostly focuses on President Trump’s chaotic management of the executive branch.

Since I’ve gone on TV and referred to Trump as being akin to the crazy uncle you deal with during family holidays, I’m certainly not going to argue with his criticisms of the White House’s governing style.

But surely it should be possible to criticize the president without relying on make-believe budget analysis.

P.S. I wonder if Patterson and other members of the Fiscal Fantasyland Club have been tricked into thinking that there have been budget cuts.

P.P.S. If Patterson decides to learn and use real budget data, I hope he’ll join me in criticizing Trump for being a big spender.

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Last week, I participated in a webinar with IES Europe. The program covered a wide range of issues, including tax competition, Social Security reform, and the recipe for national prosperity.

Here’s what I said on the topic of federalism.

To add some hard data to the discussion, let’s compare the degree of fiscal decentralization in the United States in both 1902 and 2019, based on numbers from the Census Bureau (click on Govt_Finances) and the Office of Management and Budget (click on Table 14.3).

As you can see from the chart, Washington now accounts for a much bigger share of overall government spending.

By the way, these numbers should not be misinterpreted.

There’s been no reduction in the burden of state and local government outlays. Indeed, there’s been a steady increase in such spending, even after adjusting for inflation.

But the federal government has grown far more rapidly.

Indeed, the fiscal history of the United States is a sad story about the loss of almost all constraints and limits that America’s Founders put in the Constitution in hopes of controlling the size and scope of Washington.

The bottom line is we now have much bigger government and it’s more remote because of centralization.

I mentioned Switzerland in the latter part of my answer.

Here’s the data comparing Switzerland and the United States. As you can see, Switzerland has been more successful in retaining genuine federalism.

Indeed, the two countries are mirror images, with nearly 2/3rds of government spending in the U.S. coming from Washington and nearly 2/3rds of government in Switzerland taking place a the level of cantons and municipalities.

P.S. Here’s what scholars from the Austrian School have said about federalism.

P.P.S. Here’s my two cents on federalism in the context of issues such as welfare, natural disasters, transportation, coronavirus, infrastructure, and Medicaid,

P.P.P.S. Because there’s strong evidence that decentralization produces better outcomes, I’m even willing to accept bad examples of federalism.

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